February 27, 2014
A friend gave me “The Gorgeous Nothings,” an art book and scholarly work I would not have bought for myself, therefore, the perfect gift. I never liked Emily Dickinson’s poems when I was forced to read them at school; now I adore them. “The Gorgeous Nothings” is a collection of 52 poems, or drafts of poems, scrawled on opened envelopes. The hypothesis is that Dickinson was 1/being frugal and using whatever scraps of paper were to hand and/or 2/ creating visual as well as written poems. The distended and upended envelopes resemble birds in flight, birds migrating, resting, tension before flight. Dickinson loved birds. And these poetic notations, unlike the books (“bound fascicles”), are multi-media presentations.
For all her puritanical frugality and discipline, Emily Dickinson, we learn here, was a free-thinking artist; these are fugitive, ephemeral writings. She was courageous, she was inspiring. And she has inspired me. In her honor I created my own experiment last night: I asked my hard-working, earnest students to bring an envelope to our first workshop class to see what they would do with it when I asked them to use these fragile physical entities (that brown and brittle with age) to record three subjects they’d like to write about. I haven’t studied them all as yet, but a cursory glance suggests that the experiment came too early in the term and that everyone was attempting to stay within the confines of the closed envelopes without tearing them apart. I’ll have to conjure different instructions for the end of term. Or perhaps I won’t have to. By then the students will be as courageous and inventive as Emily Dickinson.
February 21, 2014
Photo from the New York Times
I met Pussy Riot’s lawyers at an event at the NYU law school last spring and was inspired by their story. Now these brave women—protest performance artists I would call them-- have recovered from their incarceration and are in Sochi demonstrating against the autocratic Putin regime. Though their staged events may seem silly, their intention is deadly serious. Hopefully, it won't kill them.
Whenever I hear about a police state suppressing artistic expression, I have nightmares. The fear of such suppression—self-censorship—gives me even more nightmares. There is no reason for us to be timid, none at all, yet fear of exposure is a constant in a writer's life even in a Great Democracy such as ours. And we do have to remain vigilant in a democracy, despite our Bill of Rights. Thus, all the necessary conversation right now about surveillance.
Students arrive in my workshop—and I will have a bunch of new students next week—eager to find their voices and their subjects. It is their mandate, I tell them, to speak loud and clear about whatever interests or moves them, and to shuck the editor on their shoulder telling them not to write about this or that. We don't live in Russia. We don't live in China. We are as free as we dare to be.
February 18, 2014
Life can be a twisted skein of snow-laden branches sometimes. And then the weather clears.
I spent most of yesterday reorganizing my atelier. I shifted furniture and unloaded books from the garbage bags where they have been fumigating. They have survived and so have we. Standing in the lobby commiserating, one of my beleaguered neighbors said, “Bed bugs hijack your life.” I agree. Apart from the exhaustion of constant laundry, vigilance, and visits from the exterminator twice a month, we have been living out of plastic bags. And still are. The vigilance can’t stop.
So its hard to concentrate at times, hard to write. I finished a short story over the holidays, sent it out to several readers, and am about to submit, the perfect labor intensive activity for yet another snowy day. I had talked to my agent about submitting using a male pseudonym as the story is edgy and told from a male POV. This is more than an experiment, it’s defiance. Though it’s 2014, male writers are often taken more seriously by editors, even female editors. Why? An anthropologist or psychologist will have to answer that question. Is the same true in England? I’m not sure. I lived, worked as a journalist, and published there for many years without a glitch.
I remember, not so long ago, I wrote an essay about the Golden Gloves competition at Madison Square Garden. Women were competing and I was struck-- almost literally at ringside—by their skill, their tolerance for blows, the blood. I wrote an essay about my ambivalence—admiration and horror. I also had fears for the health of their breasts, albeit they were protected by purpose-built shields. I could feel every punch on my breasts.
The article was well written, I knew that, and it was raw. But I couldn’t place it until I buried my first name in the initials CB: CB Bergman. The editors that wrote back to me assumed I was a male reporter. Their responses were immediate and chatty. Inadvertently, I’d been invited into their sporty club. And that was the point: women were now in the ring. Except the editors thought I was a man.
February 11, 2014
It was my husband, Jim’s, suggestion to go completely digital. And it happened on Sunday when the breakfast table was spilling over with paper, most of which we were not interested in reading, especially the advertisement inserts. So much paper to recycle and we are only one family, we said. Let’s think about the drought in California, the shortage of water, the erosion of our earthly forests. And we agreed that the digital revolution is good for the environment. As the NY Times account is in my name and I have an educator’s rate, I made the change—in just a few seconds. The speed of our lives is incredible these days, no?
Though I have often browsed the NY Times online and I have a Guardian app on my phone, this morning was the first morning that I sat at my computer reading the newspaper completely online. Apart from the flashing advertisements, it was a pleasant experience. I could skim or read the whole article, and then browse the blogs—well written, much longer first person amplifications of the news. They are good.
In my early reporting and book reviewing days, I became competent at writing to strict deadlines and word counts. I still think both are a good disciplines for writers and I insist on word counts in my workshop. What can we do in the space we have? But there are also frustrations when word counts are limited; the capaciousness of blogs enables more thoughtful reporting.
As for the NY Times Crossword, which my husband has finished almost every day since we met, its absence on our first digital morning was a notable sensory deprivation. No pen, no paper. And though I have since found out that the crossword can be done online for a small fee, that does not feel the same. So on the way home from my swim yesterday—I get my best ideas in the pool—I stopped at one of the only three dimensional Barnes and Nobles left in the city and bought a book of NY Times Puzzles in hard copy. My husband was grateful.
February 6, 2014
It’s the 10th anniversary of FB and, in celebration, they have collated our photographs to make a personal "lookback" movie, and they have asked us to share them on our timelines. But they haven’t obtained anyone’s permission from their thousands and millions of happy users. Is this innocent, or not? True, we are free to share or not share our FB “home movies,” and, according to a report in the newspaper today, we may soon be able to edit our movies. Does this also mean that we’ll be able to ditch the schmaltzy music, or ask the FB “automatic” collating film-making machine to delete?
The question of permission and ownership on the web is of great fiduciary concern to all artists—writers, visual artists,photographers and musicians. Why? Because we create work, own the copyright to that work, and want to be paid for it. Unless we decide to give it away.
And who started the “let’s flood FB with poetry and visual images gig?” Unless a work has outlived its copyright and is in the public domain, this is illegal. FB is a well regarded and well known company. At the very least, they are in a position to enforce copyright law. Why don’t they? If they are scanning this post, perhaps someone in FB cyberspace will answer. Otherwise, I am sure, eventually, they'll have to answer to the organizations that represent artists, photographers, writers and musicians.
In the meantime, I will Google my name every once in a while and track down various institutions and companies that have stolen my copyrighted work. And I won’t be posting a Facebook generated “movie” to my timeline.
Happy Birthday anyway.
February 1, 2014
I was in the car during a freak, unpredicted ice storm, my son-in-law driving, when he asked me what I was working on. We were in the midst of a scary situation, the road a slick rink, my daughter in the car behind with my husband, inching forward in convoy. At first—anxiety riding high—I thought he was trying to distract me, but then he continued to discuss a new Kingsolver novel he was reading and his next question was so astute—for a reader who is not a writer—that I was in awe: “Is it difficult to write from multiple points of view?”
Of course the answer is “yes.” But why? Well, I had to explain that when we first begin to write, it’s much easier to see everything from the prism of our own experience, to write in the intimate first person. (And this is true of both fiction and nonfiction.) Or, alternatively, we’ll establish an omniscient third person narrator who sees and knows everything. (And this is also true of both fiction and nonfiction.)
These days, neither choice satisfies, and I have an hypothesis about why this is so, as follows: We’ve changed. We’re more tolerant. We’ve evolved. We listen more to multiple points of view.
Of course, this is just an hypothesis and it’s from my POV. But I was around when a major shift took place in the newsroom—more women, more minorities—and the “girls in the balcony,” as they were known in the Washington press corps, were finally let onto the floor of Congress to report. The story of pay and opportunity equity for women in the balcony, and the New York Times in particular, is told by Nan Robertson in her page turning book:
It was originally published in the 1990’s and reissued in 2000, not that long ago. And it’s not so long ago that women were relegated to the society pages or the home pages. As for minorities in the newsrooms and on broadcast TV, they were non-existent until the late 1960’s, if memory serves. Progress came only after a civil rights struggle and changes in the law.
Do women have a more expansive consciousness? Do they have a larger appetite for uncertainty? For multiple points of view? Because as soon as women and minorities entered the newsroom and the boards of publishing houses and academic towers, narration changed.
When white men did most of the news reporting and essay writing, their voices were often omniscient. Then came the women’s movement and the New Journalism—Wolfe, Didion, Mailer, Thompson—which established a new narrative persona—more peripheral, the reporter in the action and reporting the action. It demanded humility, not omniscience. And we can still feel this tectonic shift today in poetry, memoirs and blogs, such as this one. Needless to say, I’m grateful for it.