Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Miller

A Million Miles in a Thousand Years
Donald Miller

“…we fail to acknowledge the brilliance of life because we don’t want the responsibility inherent in the acknowledgment. We don’t want to be characters in a story because characters have to move and breathe and face conflict with courage.”

            The theme this month in my reading life seems to be one of optimism. I suppose that bodes well for a start to the new year, and it is certainly a welcome change from my MA subjects of study (Modernism and African American Lit are two of the things I love most in this world, but I wouldn’t say reading either is a particularly joyful experience). I don’t want to think of myself as inherently pessimistic, but sometimes my mind attacks me and tells me all kinds of terrible things,  like life is meaningless and we all die alone – especially you will die alone, Emily, and not, unfortunately, for a very, very long time. I recently assigned my students to read David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech to Kenyon University. In it he says that he understands why people who shoot themselves usually do it in the head; that’s the part that’s plaguing them – the “evil master,” he calls it. (I did not mention to the students that DFW committed suicide himself, later, but one of the more dedicated ones came up after class and expressed her surprise at having found that out. Does that make what he says about controlling your thinking any less valid? I don’t think so. It seems like just more evidence for his claim.) Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I understand Foster Wallace’s point, which is why I’ve become a Buddhist – so that I can learn to control my thinking and not be such a slave to my mental demons. It is also why it is something of a relief to read authors like Glass and Miller who believe that at the bottom of everything there is a fundamental connection between people, that the essence of the world is good not just in some mystical, veiled sense, but right here, now.

            Miller’s book is about what he learned while working with a couple of filmmakers to make a movie out of his memoir. If that makes you think this book is about the craft of writing, you are right. But what’s cool and unique about it is that Miller takes the lessons he learns about how to craft a good story – a good story has “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it,” “good stories have good scenes” – and applies them to his life, so that the book is interesting not only for writers and artists, but for anyone who wants, as Miller thought-provokingly terms it, to “live a good story.” I do, I do! The only problem, for me, is that I want to write them, too.  

It’s fine to read Miller’s book as a regular person. It’s good to think about how to create more risk and meaning in our lives. But it’s harder to read it as a writer, and think about combining that role with being a person. The lessons Miller learns make me feel anxious and guilty, as well as inspired, because when I read them I find it difficult to control my mind, which is constantly telling me that I’m not doing enough. Not only am I not living a good story, but I’m not writing them, either. I understand that I have done some pretty awesome things, and I have even written a few things that I feel really proud of, but the fact remains that it is never not true that I could be doing more. I could get up earlier. I could stay up later. I could forgo the hangouts or the elaborate lesson plans. I could dedicate myself to my art. Whatever I do is never good enough for me. Is this my story? Miller says you can change your story, choose-you-own-adventure, so to speak. It’s all up to me.

Maybe there is some direction for me in the ending to the book, in the part where he gets to the hope that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Writing about a bike ride he took across the country, Miller says, “If a story sets our moral compass, my compass had changed from cynicism to hope. I didn’t believe the television pundits anymore. I didn’t believe people were by nature bad or my neighbor was my enemy. The America we see on television and read about in the newspapers isn’t the America we found as we pedaled across the country at fifteen miles per hour. We encountered no fear or tension. Instead, in small towns stitched together by back roads, we found kindness.” So maybe I need to concentrate, too, on turning my moral compass from cynicism to hope, and expect the reception of my private thoughts to be met with kindness and interest, rather than scorn and dismissal. My very smart fiancĂ© always says that life gives you what you expect it to, and in fact I know someone who won the Powerball jackpot. He was already rich before that, and people kept asking him why he was even playing Powerball in the first place. You know what he said? He said that he kept playing because he thought he would win. Playing Powerball would be a lot easier than what I’m trying to do, but it probably wouldn’t make as good of a story.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Whole World Over, Glass

The Whole World Over
Julia Glass

“The birds’ migration routes crisscrossed the map like a craze of telephone wires, swooping gracefully from one coast to another. The seemed almost to secure the world, all these well-traveled paths in the sky, the way ribbon or twine secures a precious gift.”

It’s fitting that I bought my copy of The Whole World Over on what amounted to a mini tour of the United States. My fiancĂ© is in the process of interviewing for medical residency programs, and over the Christmas holiday I was lucky enough to be able to accompany him to some of them. On a lovely wander about Tucson, AZ, I picked up this novel, and it became my constant companion through flights to Madison, WI, New York City, and back home to Portland, OR. Even though, at over 500 pages, it’s by no means a short book, I was sad to see it, and my trip, come to an end.
            The novel starts out in the consciousness of baker, mother, and wife Greenie Duquette, who is in some sense the main but by no means the only character. Other chapters allow us into the psyches of Alan, Greenie’s husband, Walter, her friend, and Saga, a young woman with whom Alan builds an unlikely friendship. Amidst the many other appealing personalities populating the novel is the reticent but loveable Fenno McLeod from Glass’s equally excellent first novel, Three Junes. Greenie’s departure from New York City to New Mexico after taking a job as head cook in the governor’s mansion is the event that sets the book in motion, and while the differences between these two worlds are interesting in their own right, what’s really at stake here are the relationships between the characters and, in turn, their relationships with themselves.
            The ultimate pleasure of reading Glass’s novels lies in their richness of detail and the almost magical way she’s able to connect what seem like a million moving parts. The book Greenie reads to her son becomes the name of their dog, who Alan gets from Saga, who meets Walter at an important moment after becoming friends with Fenno… it sounds convoluted, but in Glass’s expert hands the interactions feel completely natural, an accurate depiction of the way things tie together in real life, the whole world over, as they do in the image of migratory bird routes on display in Fenno’s bookstore.
            In addition to exploring the haphazard but important ways we come to know each other, the novel is interested in how we come to know ourselves. Glass’s prose insists that this knowing cannot be separated from our knowledge of others, but the book also questions whether such influences can be detrimentally misleading or confusing. How can you know if what you feel is true? How can you know if you would be the same person you are now if you had not met the people you did? The answers to these questions have consequences, of course, not just for our own self-knowledge, but for how we’re able to maintain and benefit from our relationships with others. Love relationships (hetero and homosexual) are the primary focus here, but family bonds and varying degrees of friendship also get a good amount of stage time.
            The Whole World Over is staunchly realistic in the very best sense of the term: it emphasizes characterization and gives us a great deal of knowledge on both the internal and external forces motivating the characters’ thoughts and actions. The fact that Glass follows not just one, but four characters, adds greater depth to this effect. What’s particularly charming about the book is that though it portrays many unhappy scenarios, the overarching mood of is one of optimism and a belief that even though we are all coming and going, lost in our own internal hells of confusion and uncertainty, connection abounds. We are not alone and isolated at all, but attached to one another in ways we notice every day and in ways only a talented novelist can help us glimpse, and appreciate.