Monday, February 22, 2010


After many years of not reading for pleasure, I began last year to read novels and books of all kinds. You can see my reading lists (have read/want to read) here if you want proof. I know how some of you are.

So I've finally discovered the work of Michael Chabon. Oh sure, we had a brief flirtation when I listened to approximately eighteen minutes of The Yiddish Policeman's Union (read by Peter Reigert who I loved in both Animal House and Crossing Delancy) on an audio book. MathMan was listening to it during his commute and allowed me into that secret world one day.

The other day at the library, I picked up Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of Husband, Father and Son. First let me tell you that I can be both enchanted and chagrined by this piece of nonfiction art. On the one hand, I'm compelled by Chabon's side of the story when it comes to telling how it feels to be a guy (in every sense of the word) in today's world.

Born in 1963, Chabon's reminiscences of childhood are very familiar to me. I was born in 1965. I remember the days of Wonderama and Wacky Packages and long, winding days covering the town and adjacent countryside on my orange Huffy bicycle with the "banana seat, sissy bar and apehanger handle bars."

It's only through the backward lens of time that I realize how lucky I was to grow up at that time, in that place. The town was small, along the Ohio River and backed by a hilly rural landscape that always seemed to offer a pleasant combination of security and adventure. And adventure we did. Those were still the days when kids were turned loose on a summer's day. There were no bike helmets, no water bottles, no insect repellent. Childhood hadn't been robbed of its fun by overly cautious adults who were willing to trade their last scrap of sanity for control over their children's lives down to the most minute detail. Shoot, we took off and only came back for lunch and dinner and then, finally and reluctantly, we'd heed our parents' demands to come in and take a bath before bedtime.

Sometimes we bothered to stop in and say hi to my mom at the courthouse where she worked. But more likely than not, we didn't bother. She was busy and we were doing our kid things.

Some days we rode to the other end of town to visit Mamaw Hewitt. You might find her sitting snapping beans or shelling peas on the back porch glider. If you were lucky, she'd offer you a couple of Chips Ahoy cookies. If you were super lucky, you got a half a Three Musketeers bar and an icy cold Coke from one of those little bottles she always bought at the Kroger. Coke is just right served in the aluminum tumblers.

On your way out, you stopped by the barn to see Papaw who would be tinkering around with his lawnmower repair business. You passed the time of day for a few minutes, fetched whatever tool he requested and collected your quarter.

Yes, we were pretty dang lucky.

Now the negative part of reading Chabon is this: I read his beautiful prose and fret about my own writing. I realize that it's all stylistic differences, but I worry that my own stripped down writing will be too lean, too stark, too See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane, run to ever actually get published. Like any writer, Chabon isn't every body's cup of tea. I understand that. And I know that any future audience I might have will read my writing for what it is - lean, stripped down, loaded with dialogue, vague on descriptions.

Could I be any more arrogant to even compare my own style to that of a Chabon? I'm so ashamed.

Now you're wondering about that word Tristeza, right? Or maybe not. Well, I'm going to tell you about that anyway because it's from a passage in Chabon's book that struck me hard. It's a great word. It's a theme, actually, for a lot of things. It's the ribbon that binds the book I'm working on right now.

Having studied French, I recognized it immediately (triste: sad) as the Spanish or Portuguese for sadness, but like many of the words in Chabon's work, I wondered about the more nuanced meanings of it. Unlike some of the words (irascible or execrable, for example) that I looked up in the dictionary to get their complete meaning, the nuance (those kinds of words - you generally know what they mean, but you're not completely sure), Chabon saved me the trouble. In reaction to a college friend telling him that he lacked tristeza, Chabon decided to go out and get some. He was good enough to describe just how he could do that:
A study of the available literature - or part of it, since the available literature occupied half the world's library shelves and three fourths of the attention of its poets - seemed to suggest that one indispensable precursor to the production of tristeza was regret. There were others - grief, exile, loss - and along the way, I might reasonably expect to acquire them or at least get a few leads on their whereabouts. Bu regret was the one prerequisite for heartbreak that I could hope to ensure a steady supply of. All I needed to do was start making mistakes, but I must do so diligently and clearly, taking full advantage of all my opportunities. I must put my trust in unreliable people, take on responsibilities I could not hope to discharge, count on impossible outcomes, ignore blessings that were right under my nose while expending my youth and energy in the pursuit of dubious pleasure. I must court disappointment, miscalculate, lie when the truth would serve better and tell the truth when the kindest thing would be to tell a lie. Above all, I would have to stick to a course of action long after it was clearly revealed to be wrong.
After I picked myself up off the bathroom floor (really , people, where do you think I do most of my reading?), I wiped the tears of laughter from my eyes so I could reread it. Did one have to work at tristeza? That someone would seek out those things seems ludicrous. I'm a magnet for them. I've elevated gaining tristeza to an awkward art form. Or maybe a science?

If that passage doesn't describe the last few years of my life, I don't know what does. But then, really describes an entire life of missteps, bad decisions, firebreathing consequences, acquiescence to fear, denying realities, succumbing to inertia, intellectual laziness, and adventure. Yes, adventure. Because this life has been that, too.

Oh, I don't mean the get on a plane and go touring adventure. That would require some level of sophistication and financial means, of which I've never possessed. No, instead, it's been more of a pack your things and move without knowing where you'll live adventure. The oh looky! we have some garbanzo beans, bran muffin mix dated 2005, some left over canned peaches and a bit of horseradish in the fridge. I can make dinner from that.... kind of adventure.

As much as it's been a commercial disaster, my life has provided me with plenty of homegrown entertainment over the years. Here's hoping that the publishing world will see it that way, too.


  1. if only a person could make a living by selling off the excess supply of tristeza one has accumulated, 3 pounds for a dollar. ..oh yeah, write a book, good idea. I think your writing style fits you to a tee-shirt Lisa.

  2. I think Chabon's description pretty much sums up my life.

    And I love the way you write. Don't change a thing. Unless your editor tells you to, of course. : )

  3. That's a new one on me. I didn't know one was supposed to work hard and practice at screwing up. And then to continue even after you know it's wrong!

  4. I know Chabon from the fabulous film Wonder Boys, which I just re-watched last night (and introduced my girlfriend at the same time). Tristeza perfectly captures what I love about the film... now I want to read the book.

  5. Great post and love the definition of tristeza. I guess it's one level different from the Portuguese "saudade" which is a kind of melancholy, homesick depression that drives their "fado" music.

    Never fret about your writing style - it is just the right amount of lean but expressive style! Now Hemingway - his is TOO lean in my opinion. You're much better than his writing, LOL!

  6. Chabon pens some pretty decent comic book scripts.

    A real writer, Jack Kerouac offered a variation on the Tristeza theme, Tristessa (yes, like sp.trieste): a cheery little tale re. JK's life on a rooftop in Mexico city with... una puta sympatica

  7. Sandy - were it true, I'd have enough money. Finally.

    Dawn - You too? And thank you.

    Kulkuri - Some of us are lucky. Screwing up just comes naturally.

    Dr. MVM - How do you like it?

    Magdelene - I'm really enjoying the book. Now I'll have to read some of his fiction.

    Maui - You are way too kind, but thank you!

    J - I know it wasn't intentional, but kapow! you just got me with your comment. Thank you for the laugh. I can't explain why I found it so funny here, but it's a winner.

  8. //worry that my own stripped down writing will be too lean, too stark, too See Jane. See Jane run. Run, Jane,//

    It's ok, Lisa, write, Lisa write. See Lisa edit. Edit, Lisa, edit. Write, Lisa, Edit, Lisa..... then get a big honking beer... Lisa. :)

  9. A fascinating read, Lisa. I'd suggest that you remember one thing. His style, wonderful though it may be, might not express who you are. I certainly think there is enough wonder to be found in you for you not to worry about measuring up to another writer.

  10. Huffy Thunder Roads, Schwinn Stingrays, Fat albert and the Cosby Kids, Chock Full Of Bolts....Whiffle Ball.

    Those were the days. Running around barefoot all summer and the soles of your feet were tougher than cowhide.

  11. Your prose, lean and mean, is a delight to read. I am glad that your voice isn't anything other than it is. Only I tend to compare myself to you when I read you and wish I could write like you. And so goes the circle of writing envy.;-)

  12. amazing how our early years sound so much alike (maybe I'll type about mine one of these days in more detail)

    you have to write in your own (to steal a line from Holy Grail) "particular idiom"

    your audience will find you not the other way around

    (well that's what I would say if I was a writer lol)

    enjoy the time last night thanks again for that.

  13. don't you dare change how you write or i will come down there and really give you a talking to!

    said with dripping emotion-don't ask me.

  14. Ah, the good old days of a small town childhood. You really took me back in time with the aluminum tumblers. I loved them.

    We also had matching dessert dishes. There was a fluted glass dish that fit into an aluminum base. In fact, I think I have them packed away somewhere. My mother passed them on to me as a wedding gift because I loved them so. Looks like time to root around the basement for them.

    Write confidently in your own style, Lisa. It's your distinctive voice / style that keeps us coming back for more.

  15. Men don't read books to learn how to be a man. Beer, boobies and sports is all you need. Don't trust a writer.

    Oh, please, don't ever ever ever ever go Hemingway-level sparse.

  16. Your voice is your voice; Michael Chabon's is his. One doesn't trump the other.

    And, for what it's worth, I've run into a couple people who consider Chabon unreadable. Crazy, but more proof that just like every writer is different, so is every reader.

  17. I'm guessing every writer who reads a lot - and I believe a good writer HAS to read a lot, compares their writing to that which they are currently reading.

    I think it's good to do so. Where would great painters be, for instance, if they had not studied the masters?

    Comparing doesn't mean giving up on your own style. Keep reading, keep writing and your style will come through. Improving upon your style continuously is the important part.

    Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors. I've read her work since her debut novel The Bean Trees and I've seen over the years how she has stayed true to her style.But with each book she has become a better writer over time. I think that is what's important.

    But that's fiction and I take it you're not writing fiction? Sorry, I have not kept pace with what the book may be about, though it's implicit in this post that you're writing about your life?

  18. I am so copping that word. I love it: Tristeza. It has my name all over it too, friend. Oh the stories I could tell!

    Please, though, don't compare your writing to his. It is definitely stylistic differences, but content and pacing and rhythm and tension and viewpoint and plotting (shall I go on?) are all unique to the individual offering them up. Your book will be uniquely fabulous as you rewrite and hone in on your special presentation of your story.

    I get what you're saying, but don't compare! As an aside, I personally aspire to a humble mix of Pat Conroy and David Sedaris.

    I know!

  19. No tristeza for you, my friend, unless it's the literary variety. It's all up from here.

  20. You guys are great. Thank you for buoying me when my confidence lags. I really appreciate it. Onward!

  21. Oh, and Barbara, find those awesome dishes. One of these days, I'm going to get my own set of aluminum tumblers.

  22. How about the dishes from ALF's home planet, Melmac??

  23. Only a WRITER would find value from an excess of tristeza!

    I read Chabon's first book -- The Mysteries of Pittsburgh -- but I definitely need to get back into him. This book piqued my interest, and sounded like something that I could get my husband to read as well.

    As for your writing, do NOT change a thing. You've got loads of "voice."

  24. Lisa, your writing voice is lush in its own way, and supremely entertaining, not to worry.

    Honestly, there are plenty of lauded literary masters that write lean and pared down.

    I think as writers we all compare and contrast ourselves to other writers we enjoy and feel inspired by.
    But, much like women with amazing style, we have to find a look that works on our body with our lifestyle.
    Not every meal need/should be caviar, foie gras and Dom.
    Fish tacos and margaritas or hot wings and beer can be pretty damn satisfying too!
    Yes, I love to read the literary works of James Joyce and Tolstoy, I savor each lush word as I would each sip of a complex red wine.
    But I bust out laughing and am just as in love reading Janet Evanovich's Plum books and love every spare and simple "Babe" from Ranger.(swoon!)

    My point, you just be your own badass self. That's the only way anyway, to be authentic. And you are authentic. Go wit yo bad self. Smell me?

    Peace out,


And then you say....

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