The Communal Experience

In May, my friend Kari told me about the Festival of the Future series of indoor and outdoor exhibits at the New Museum on Bowery.

“It’s called Ideas City,” she said, and I was immediately sold.

It was a steamy afternoon that was getting gross with the amount of people and the air sitting around the buildings. We wandered around with red balloons encouraging people to learn more about AIDS research and HIV testing. We spent some time sitting in on a hackathon tracking black spending. And we collected a bunch of temporary tattoos from environmental activists and landscape architects studying how to better use the land and resources we already have. We walked up and around a side street that started with a few food vendors and some refreshing-drinks. Past that, everything seemed to devolve into experiments. Here try some smog meringue. Behind that, check out a huge mural-in-progress, all outlines and potential.

As we made our way down, we came across a long table where a couple dozen people sat haphazardly, munching on watermelon and pumpkin seeds. They tore off pieces of delicious loaves and dipped them in seasoned olive oil. One woman carefully eyed a pomegranate, and, unable to find a utensil, started cracking it on the edge of the table.

“Whoa,” I said. “What is this?”

“I have no idea.” We walked all the way to the end of the table, watching these people sit and enjoy their meal. At one point, we stopped and a man waved us over.

“Come sit!” he said. “Eat something.” Kari and I looked at each other and shrugged. We took a seat at the table.

“What’s the catch?” I whispered.

“Do we need to sign up for something?” Kari asked.

“Nope,” the man said. Then, he took a step back. “Oh, I’m not in charge. I’m just eating.”

“Who’s in charge?” I asked and he just smiled.

“Don’t know.”

Then, the man produced a knife. Let me pause here to acknowledge that this is an odd circumstance in New York City, but I assumed it was part of the festival. If this were any other situation, I’d be in a cult by now. The man deftly sliced open our watermelon and then went back to his own seat.

“This is all so…” I said.

“Odd,” Kari said.

We sat down around the free food, bottles of water and cups. On the tables were unsharpened pencils, pencil sharpeners, and stacks of paper with questions about affordable housing, whether we felt we paid too much for rent and how racial discrimination is tied to the housing crisis. As we sat there, abuzz with watermelon and happily full of bread, we were discussing housing and inequality, recycling and food waste, with some volunteers from the festival. We wondered whether this was what the good parts of communism felt like. People would walk by and look at us, the same way we looked at people a few minutes before and we waved them over.

“So this is the future?” One man asked.

“You want some watermelon?” I asked, all wide-eyed and Midwestern sweetness. I recruited more people to our table and a woman used the plastic cups to scoop out watermelon and share them with other new friends at the table. After awhile, a tiny light of skepticism creeped in and leaned over to check for tiny cameras or wires under the tables, recording us. I was disappointed not to find anything, but then I started to scan the buildings and found a couple cameras, slightly obscured but attached with duct tape. I waved at one, so they would know that I knew that they were watching. Then, I grabbed some more bread.

A bunch of kids in matching t-shirts ran over and stood in awe in front of the table.

“Watermelon!”

“Can we have some?” one of the tall kids asked. He was already reaching for the watermelon. My good teacher instincts were suddenly headbutted by this new life path I was taking. I looked at him and smiled.

“Of course!” I said. A teacher behind him tilted his head, as if to say, “Really?

“Umm…the food isn’t mine? So, that is entirely up to your teachers,” I said carefully.

“Awwww man…” the kid said.

“There’s plenty more for when you get back.”  I mouthed “I’m sorry” at his teacher, who smirked as the hustled the kids away from free, delicious food on a hot summer day.

Eventually, we wandered off to check out more sites at the festival and I tried to shake off the daze of the situation. We were talking to one woman who worked for a group that helped felons get their records expunged and she said, “You know I heard there are people giving out free food and water on the corner.”

“Yes!” I said. “You have to go get some.”

An hour or so later, on our way back, we saw the kids from earlier painting in the unfinished murals, brushes in one hand, chunks of watermelon in the other.




Grace and Oppression

“You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today.”

It takes a certain amount of bravery to speak out, but even more to act on your convictions. Bree Newsome, a writer, singer and activist, climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina Statehouse in Charleston and took down the Confederate flag. She did this 10 days after nine black people were murdered in their church, during Bible study.

For people who don’t know — and I’m finding more and more people who are blissfully unaware — the Confederate flag flies all over the South. It’s Southern pride, I’ve been told. And after a weekend of celebrating pride and equality for all people, the Confederate flag isn’t about pride. Heritage and history, sure. But as many politicians have been saying over the last few days and over the past several years, there are some parts of our heritage that are better left in a museum. Parts of our heritage that do not showcase or welcome the current state of our lives, but throw opinions of worth and identity in the faces of people who do not enjoy life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness under that flag.

I was born and raised in a small, predominantly white town in Upper Michigan. And we studied The Civil War in class, in brief, informative bursts. In these sections of our history books we found the battle flag of the Confederate States of America, an outdated, oppressive symbol tied forever in my mind with slavery. Of pain, suffering, and the blood of my ancestors. Too often, we try to forget the legacy of the United States because it’s uncomfortable to talk about.

When my family moved to Tennessee when I was in high school, I glanced at the cars in the parking lot and the t-shirts of students I noticed in the halls and felt a small sense of panic billowing up inside of me. There was the Confederate flag, pulled from history books and decorated all over cars, shirts, backpacks, and bulky cell phones. On a band trip, a young trumpet player used a little red pillow with the flag emblazoned on it to prop her head up against the window.

In Tennessee, off Interstate 40, a large Confederate flag flies proudly. I’ve passed it often. When I complained about this to people who I knew would listen, I was told it was on someone’s private land, and they were free to do with their property as they pleased. And so I daydreamed of tracking down their address, pulling down their flag, setting it on fire, and standing there as I watched it burn. I’m tired of having the argument. I’m tried of the reasoned conversations, of trying to sit down and describe to someone what it feels like to have this kind of oppression placed on you, day by day, to the point where you begin to get used to it. Where you accept it and stay quiet about it. You let your colleagues and peers continue to flaunt their “Southern pride” because you have given up attempting to explain your worth.

The flag issue builds up in the news every few years and then it dies down again. For personal expression, do what you please, but the flag that Bree Newsome took down early Saturday morning flies over a government building. Gov. Nikki Haley says the flag should come down, but it’s protected by law. Two-thirds of their governing body will vote (eventually) about taking down the flag. Many politicians are supporting taking the flag down. But people like Bree Newsome grew tired of waiting, especially as innocent people are buried due to actions taken under the support of that flag and what it represents.

After Bree Newsome was placed under arrest, the Confederate flag was put back up, in accordance with South Carolina law, just in time for a pro-flag rally. President Obama has routinely sidestepped race issues, often prodded by his detractors as politicizing the problem, as if by relating to other people he wasn’t doing his job. His job includes protecting all citizens and that often means teaching all citizens about the rule of law. Maybe people are only capable of changing so much. Maybe it’s easier to turn away from fact, reason, and emotional pain than to address or accept it. Meanwhile, black churches in the South are still burning, but you may not have caught that on the news. During President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, he moved away from the man and focused on the senseless massacre on June 17th. Then, he discussed the flag:

“Removing the flag from this state’s Capitol would not be an act of political correctness, it would not be an insult to the valor of Confederate soldiers, it would simply be an acknowledgement that the cause for which they fought, the cause of slavery, was wrong. It would be one step in an honest accounting of America’s history; a modest but meaningful balm for so many unhealed wounds.  It would be an expression of the amazing changes that have transformed this state and this country for the better, because of the work of so many people of goodwill, people of all races striving to form a more perfect union.  By taking down that flag, we express God’s grace.”

President Obama has been talking a lot about grace lately, attempting to speak to everyone’s moral instincts, the ones that teach us to be better people. Symbols matter. They alter perceptions and shape identities. Symbols that blatantly support hate or derision or inequality don’t belong in the United States, or any country that proudly flaunts its status around the world as the land of the free. Part of honoring our history isn’t just learning about our past, or keeping our past alive, it’s about learning from our past, as well. And that will take an inordinate amount of grace.




Writing Through It

During my MFA, my nonfiction friends and I had a lot of conversations about the art of writing. Most of these conversations happened after class, at the end of a long day, around 10 pm at some bar near campus. We went to unwind and let loose and not think so much about the money or the time or our students or our abandoned drafts, but talk always wound back around to the work. That’s why we were there, after all.

Sometimes during a workshop, the class would read a draft and the author, sitting quietly during the initial reading or discussion, would tear up, stiffen, or just cry. Often it was just embarrassment and an acknowledgment of your words being read aloud. It’s good to read your work aloud, even better to have someone else do it. You get all the jokes, nod along to the cadence, get to hear the fluidity of your words. You also notice all the flubs, the missteps, the wooden dialogue, the typos, that thing you meant to cut but forgot.

And this work, particularly in nonfiction, hits close to home. It is home. We nonfiction writers, the essayists, the prose-ists finding art in the everyday, this is how we live our lives. And the art of writing about our situations isn’t just to tell people a story. At times, we write through our problems, our own sense of private — and then very public — therapy, putting these experiences down on paper to make heads or tails of them, once and for all.

Sometimes, it really is just about a story.

But the question we always asked ourselves is: “Is this art?” It wasn’t only the nonfiction writers, worrying about whether or not an edited narrative arc in a diary still fit the bill. The fiction writers and poets wondered this too, as they cribbed quotes and situations and barely-veiled ex-lovers into their work. How original is creativity, anyway? Is there a story that hasn’t been told before? We worried that by writing through our problems we were in some way subverting the creative process. That the ideas weren’t supposed to be in service to us, our writing was meant to be about something much bigger. I always argued that my writing could be both. That I could write about myself and make connections to the bigger picture. That was the whole point. You can write in a bubble, but all great writers read all the time. You can’t be a writer without being a reader, without seeing how everyone else places their words. It’s also another way that writers make connections to other writers. You find the work that speaks to you.

The one thing I found in common with all writers, like all people, is that we’re all a little broken in some ways. And we often use the work as an outlet to put our feelings on the page. It’s probably cheaper than actual therapy, potentially more effective. But then I wonder about my peers who cried in the beginning of our workshops, as even I (described as stoic to those who first meet me) turned red-faced and fidgety as my classmates read about how I wrote about my 10-year-old self.

I’ve gotten to the point where I can pinpoint a downturn in my mood to the last time I wrote a paragraph. This whole past week, wrapped up in other people’s work and words except my own, I fell into a type of bored sadness. Now, writing that sentence gives me pause. I want to take it back because even for all my writing about writing, and writing about myself, do I want you to know that? And now that you know, does it change anything? Are my opinions more or less valid because I express them fluidly, vividly, or cowardly? I need the story as much as it needs me.

Young writers are told that they can’t, or shouldn’t, write memoir because they’re not done yet, they haven’t processed anything, they haven’t lived enough. But no one gets to tell a writer what they can or cannot express (except an editor). The work, whether it’s scribbled in a notebook, read aloud in a workshop, or published in a widely-read novel, is still some writer coming to grips with their idea of the truth. There are so many unknowns and everyone has different ways of getting to the bottom of their story. Everyone who’s in the middle of an argument should recognize that there are three truths: what you think, what the other person thinks, and then, what actually happened.

Our truth in our history books is written by the people who had the opportunity to get it on the page. How many histories are ignored or forgotten because they weren’t maintained? It’s important for people with untold stories to have the opportunity to share them. Because although everyone is unique in their own way (I maintain I’m the shiniest of all the special snowflakes), there is always someone who will find something in common with your story. There is someone who needs your story, and there is a chance that your words can aid and help someone or something bigger than you. So to my writers out there who are dealing with getting the truth on the page: keep writing. Your words are worth it, and your stories are needed.




Not Enough

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

— “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes

In college, I was part of a fairly large riot. It was unintentional, I sort of went with the flow of people outside my dorm room, fueled forward by curiosity. There was a lot of noise and I remember people banging on buckets with spoons they’d swiped from the cafeteria, sticks from the trees at the library. To this day, I wonder, where did they get the buckets?

I followed the crowd and we ended up down at the stadium where some boys appeared with a mattress and set it on fire. Who’s mattress was that suddenly ablaze and flickering? I still don’t know. I’m not entirely sure why we were there, burning something. UT had either beaten or lost badly, to Florida, our SEC rival. I don’t know whether we won or lost. Obviously, it’s irrelevant. No one got in trouble. Just kids, everyone said. Just blowing off some steam.

In high school, some seniors went streaking as a prank before graduation, pale bodies dashing across the school grounds. They were told specifically that year not to try any pranks, but I overheard a few of them saying it was their right, they were going protest, and then, they had something planned. The school threatened the naked avengers by saying they might not graduate. I saw one of the guys, days later, crying outside the main office. I was proud of myself, honestly. After that display, outside those huge glass windows from the cafeteria, I was impressed I recognized his face.

My senior year, the school changed the scheduling, from four classes a day to seven shorter periods. It seemed silly, but it was out of our hands. The part that irked me, was student leadership showed up at board meetings for weeks, with questions, added themselves on the agenda, were prepared to have their say, and week after week, were ignored. A group of students organized a sit-in, people told me, as I was on my way to second block. So I stayed. I wanted to know what was up.

Still, there were nearly 1,000 students by the senior lockers in the large open area near the staircase. Probably a fire hazard. Most of the students took it seriously, while a handful were leaving garbage and ordering pizzas. There are always a few who ruin it for everyone. I sat near the back, listening to what everyone had to say, sort of fascinated by this nearly sanctioned rule-breaking. Someone called the radio station. The newspaper even stopped by to take pictures. And the next morning, there I was with my friend Elizabeth, smiling and waving for the camera.

I wonder now, how many of my classmates would march for inequality when it truly mattered? Who gets the right to recognize a problem and make a little noise to draw some attention? Who gets to stand up to a broken system and question its purpose? Who gets to blindly wander the streets, damaging property? Maybe more of my classmates from undergrad should move to Baltimore, where even gangs joined together to protect their communities.

We’re so well-taught to sit down and take it, to not cause a stir. This is the way things are, you don’t shake things up, you deal with it. You don’t make a fuss. You don’t end up in the paper.

An election just ended in the UK. Most Americans aren’t aware, because election season in the UK is quick. They dissolve Parliament and then vote a few weeks later. The brevity is enthralling, especially considering the 2016 US campaigns are just getting started, and will drain us of all emotional stability over the next several months. I worry 2016 will be as brutal as 2008, as frustrating as 2012.

Check out the UK results, and you’ll probably catch some videos of the crowds outside of 10 Downing Street, where the re-elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, lives. These protestors were out in broad daylight, and the officers are clear as day, many in small hats, all in bright yellow, reflective vests that say “POLICE.” You can’t miss them. The Guardian has been writing about much of the political scene under the line: “Anger, apathy and hope.” Pollsters have been doling out non-apologies over the past few days, talking about how they got it wrong. Columnists are offering tips on how to deal with political grief.

That’s why everyone keeps writing about protests, talking about Baltimore, feeling through the situation. To try to make sense of things. Because we don’t know what’s next. All I know is, it’s not enough. But if people need to march the streets and brave police and batons and tear gas, to make sure that justice comes through in the end — the way  it should always, for everyone, in the beginning — that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

None of this will bring back Freddie Gray. It won’t immediately reverse the systemic spiraling of all that we’ve done to cities like Baltimore. We like to let things fester, say that they’re fine, say that we’ll handle it later, that it’s someone else’s problem. Every once in awhile, the pressure will build, and there will be a small crack in the system. Something about the injustice will not hold, and people will take to the streets. And why shouldn’t they?

Whenever I start feeling frustrated about politics and protests, I watch speeches from movies, like the end of Dave, Independence Day, and The American President.

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight… You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.

I’m not sure what it says about me that I’m trying to find resolution and comfort in short clips from fictional movies, about fictional presidents with very real problems. Maybe Aaron Sorkin distills what I want to say better than what I’m feeling. The difference between fiction and reality is, we’re not fixing ours. We’re repeating the same mistakes over and over. Commentators watch the protests as if they’ve never seen anything like it before. As if people have suddenly decided to gather and wander the streets. As if they must be upset about something else. As if property is more important than human lives. Unless of course, you still consider those human lives as property.

What I wonder is, what’s next? Because people will continue to protest as long as they are continually beaten down by people in power who are insistent on keeping them quiet, on keeping them voiceless, on treating them as if they don’t matter at all. Protests draw attention to the real problems we face and help bring about solutions. To stop protests, you have to pay attention to the real unjust systems of racial, economic, and housing inequality. Of how votes are counted and how people’s ideas and ballots are weighed and measured. Change and improvement doesn’t happen by itself. It often starts with one voice, joined with another and then another, letting you know there’s more work to be done.

And, as for those riots after the football games? Well, those are just some people blowing off steam.




On Deadlines, Failure, and Getting Started

“Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

When I was in elementary school, we had end-of-year projects. And in the beginning, when I was little, I worked my little fingers off, coloring in my drawings, cutting out little uneven squares of colored paper, and writing papers. But by fifth grade, I decided that I was tired. The idea of coming up with something — something that no one might like — that I then had to show off for a grade, completely overwhelmed me. I was so afraid of spending time creating something mediocre that I decided not to make anything at all. It was an idiom project, one that my brothers had done before, and we still had theirs, nicely drawn and tightly bound in the closet upstairs. I think we needed fifty of them, tiny phrases that I went around the house attempting to remember. After several explanations, I still couldn’t wrap my head around “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” I tried to use “Too many cooks in the kitchen” to get out of doing the dishes. “A penny for your thoughts” was rather handy when I needed lunch money, and I usually managed to charm that penny up to 50 cents.

When my brothers did the idiom project in elementary school, I helped them color in the backgrounds of their tiny drawings. Now that it was my turn, the responsible one, I sat in the floor of my bedroom in front of their old projects, wondering if I could steal their drawings and turn them in as my own. I knelt in front of my blank sheets of paper and decided it just wasn’t going to happen. I shoved the papers, my colored pencils, and my ideas all back in my desk drawer and pretended like it never happened.

When I write and I have an idea, I scribble a phrase on a post-it note and I come back to it later. I constantly have ideas. Most of them are terrible. Some of them are amazing, but I find that the amazing almost never make it on paper. It’s such an effort. You’re taking this great, big, beautiful idea, these series of Impressionist paintings in your mind, and then you are going to slowly destroy them by putting them on paper. Nothing will ever be quite as great on the page as it is in your imagination.

I read books that take me above and beyond and away — it’s an escape, but it’s a comfort, too. Some books are made into films and those films never live up to that joy of not really knowing what’s coming next. Of how the world you envisaged is not what you see on the screen. And yet, when I get started writing, when I finally express those thoughts on a page, it makes my days better. Writing a great sentence can change the tone of any day.

Toni Morrison did an interview with NPR  to promote her new novel, God Help the Child. And she talked a lot about the moments she regrets in her life, but also, why she continues to write:

“The writing is — I’m free from pain. It’s the place where I live; it’s where I have control; it’s where nobody tells me what to do; it’s where my imagination is fecund and I am really at my best. Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing.”

Then, why is it, when I talk to my writer friends, or anyone who’s at work on anything, we all bemoan the looming deadline? It’s going to happen. The date isn’t going to change. You’re not going to suddenly have more time. Even if you do, you’ll find yourself re-watching episodes of The West Wing to help “stimulate your creativity” or “decompress” or whatever lie you’re currently trying to tell yourself.

And I need deadlines, we all do. Even if I mark a day on the calendar for myself, I still have to follow it. It’s not going to go away. The work might. The idea might vanish.

“The story will die anyway,” I tell myself. Either at my own hands as I attempt to get it on the page, or as it slowly fades away from me when I’m not looking.

“Depressing!” you say. Well, yeah. But wouldn’t you rather try?

Writers tell me they have trouble submitting work because they’re afraid of what people might think, but the worst that can happen? The editors won’t like it. They’ll send you a rejection note, or you’ll query them in six months and they’ll say, “Oh, sorry!” and you’ll get your note a couple of weeks later. I’ve been collecting them from The New Yorker like trading cards for the last several years.

I’m no better at it now, especially now that my thesis is done and the threat of failure is gone. If I don’t finish my stories now, no one will notice really, except for me. One of my friends offered to keep track of my deadlines for this novel I’m (sort of) writing. He will nudge me when I have a date looming so I can stay on track. And I’m currently procrastinating on letting him know my own deadlines. Mostly because I don’t have any for my novel. Which means it’s not going to get done until I do.

I get why my friends in engineering, pharmacy, computer science, and other “less-artsy” fields think that writers are crazy. We’re so neurotic it’s exhausting. “Just do it,” they say. “You care too much about the outcome.” “If you really want to do it,” they tell me, “it won’t be so hard.”

They’re right. Because I’m not writing for anyone else but me. I’m the one with the high standards. I’m the person I’m afraid of disappointing. So I pull out my little notebook with tiny scribbles in the margins, doodles, and fluorescent post-it notes. I go through my list of ideas until something makes me laugh or smile. Then I pull out a notebook, a full-sized one with a bunch of blank, wide-ruled lines, and I get started. Once I’m really going, I’ll pull out my computer if it’s handy. I like to draft in 750words.com because it times me, it tracks me. I get to see exactly what I’m up to before it ends up anywhere else. When I go back through the archives to see what I wrote in April 2015, at the very least, I’ll find this worry-missive about why I can never seem to work without a deadline. I’ve given in to my need for structure and boundaries. Why I’m writing now? I’m on a deadline. But also because it makes me happy.

And that idiom project in elementary school that I agonized over? I turned it in. It was late, sloppy, and I rushed through it. I got a C, something I’m embarrassed about to this day. Whenever I have some creative work looming, I picture that little girl kneeling on the floor over a bunch of blank sheets of paper, wringing her hands, wondering how she could ever manage to get started. Then, I pick up a pen.




Gatsby’s Anthem

A few years ago, I kept trying to tell my college students (the great intellectual minds of our future) to think a bit deeper about their writing projects. Not everything had to be about Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Jack London. I would be happier—and more interested in their work—if they wrote about things they cared about. I wanted to read more about Lady Gaga and feminism, about The Walking Dead as a morality tale, and how social media was ruining their productivity. Students would tentatively step into my office and run these ideas by me and I frightened them with my excitement.

“Yes! Write all of it! That’s great!”

To get more of my students on board with the now sacrosanct “write what you know,” I decided to go all in on what I know. I requested Jay-Z’s Decoded from the library, and then I started a class by playing a clip from The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel was first published over 90 years ago.

Early in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, our lost hero, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) weaves in and out of traffic with his new friend, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In this version, the audience is pulled from the nostalgic view of the 1920s and the image of the well-to-do Gatsby played by the adored Robert Redford. Instead, the film presents the former teen heartthrob all grown up, built, tanned, and practically gleaming with the sheen of new money. Passing these two in the opposite direction is another searing convertible, filled with black people, blaring “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” complete with a white driver. Nick is in a whirlwind with his friend and the sudden, profound changes in his lifestyle. He’s enamored by the decadence, the alcohol, and the jazz. The heavily embellished image of Gatsby and the ‘20s is interrupted at the sight of this well-polished bullet of car, practically prancing off Luhrmann’s screen.

And their music, the lush surprise of jazz in the 1920s is juxtaposed and represented here as rap in the 2000s. Their car is filled with things, the same way Gatsby has stuffed his life with excess, designed to attract Daisy, and then to fill the void.

The scene lasts only a few seconds, and the intention was clear: Luhrmann was using rap the way Fitzgerald used jazz. It’s another interesting take on race in this movie, however brief. Tom Buchanan spends another scene wandering around feeling affronted by the idea that his servants might be considered his equal someday. He’s shocked that there are people struggling through life like everyone else, but also reveling in its excesses.

Baz Luhrmann’s films include colloquial, popular music, whether set in Shakespearean England (with the Cranberries) or cabaret France (with Elton John). The scene illustrates Baz Luhrmann’s technique and highlights how music is used to influence audiences today, the same way that jazz influenced audiences in the ‘20s. The music matches Luhrmann’s style, mixing the familiar with the unexpected to make a new kind of film that matches both visual and aural senses. Like Luhrmann’s earlier films, a mash-up of contemporary music in a period setting brings the past and the present together.

Many people aren’t on board with Luhrmann’s plan. And the bad reviews are not only bad, they are unexceptional, because they are expected. A variety of reviews mentioned this scene as “ridiculous,” “overdone,” or “tacky,” clearly missing the point. Their intention is also clear: How dare this man ruin this movie, with rap? Who is this Jay Z anyway? Ironic that people who were not so struck by Beck in Moulin Rouge, or Des’ree in Romeo + Juliet, are so appalled by the sound of Jay Z appearing in their lush 1920s dreams. They do not realize that they are as struck by the presence of “those” people and “that” music as their counterparts were in the ‘20s. Maybe Gatsby will be remade in another 40 years and they’ll take a different stride.

Another read through The Great Gatsby, not in a cold, high school English classroom, will illuminate Fitzgerald’s story: “I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library” (42). This is not meant to be slow. This is not meant to be dull. This is about alcohol and sin and lusciousness and heartbreak.

“Izzo” was released in 2001, produced by Kanye West and is arguably one of Jay Z’s most famous songs. In Decoded, he calls rap “a deceptive form of art” (54). It relishes in talk of money and dreams and also is as encouraging as an anthem can be—both a sign of community and a move toward standardization. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Jay Z is a brand, and “Izzo” is way to make everyone believe in and act on the same things that he loves.

Popular culture has become so attuned to jazz, that people don’t realize now that jazz wasn’t the norm. Luscious parties, with this new, brassy, ballsy music, there’s a feel to it that readers may not even know they’re missing. But that in-your-face, surprising, usurping kind of feeling when that car drives by blasting “Izzo”? That’s what Fitzgerald was talking about. The allure of something new on the horizon.

Just as Gatsby watches Daisy slip away from him, vanishes after a tragic accident, leaving him in confusion and despair, “Izzo” exposes how “We can talk, but money talks, so mo’ bucks,” and even as this music dances around them, Gatsby is unable to see that his new money is not a match for Daisy’s infatuation, her dream-like world of comfort with a philandering husband whose past, and whose money, will never be out of style.

***

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.

Jay Z. Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Print.

—. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” The Blueprint. Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, 2001. CD.

Luhrmann, Baz, dir. The Great Gatsby. Warner Bros. 2013. Film.




Memory Keeping

In my family, I’m the memory keeper, the ideas person, the one who remembers what colors were on my favorite Christmas sweater, the one that shrunk in the wash. I used to think that everyone had the same memory, and then I realized how wrong I was. No one quite retains our past the way I do.

When I was little, I wanted to do everything my older brothers did, and I wanted to do it better. So I tried to ride their bikes while I still had the training wheels on mine, I tried to wrap my chubby fingers along the lacing of their football, and I read their books before I knew what the words meant. So when I saw them writing, doing their homework, I had to do it, too. Chris and Brian couldn’t just read the words on the page, they could create their own and I needed to know whatever magic they had learned.

After my hovering and lip biting, my mother gave me a large sheet of lined, scratchy handwriting paper, the kind with the blue dotted lines that feels like cardboard and erases with huge smudges, right before the paper rips open. And I got to write. I had a baby blanket covered in teddy bears, with the alphabet stitched together in red and white squares. I reprinted all of those detailed letters, putting that distinct curve at the end of my ls and dotting my is and js.

One day, in the middle of my insistent practicing, I either got sick of the brown paper or maybe my mind drifted, and I was looking for a new canvas to perform on. And there, in the living room, were my parents’ nice white walls.

When my mother caught me, I had written several little es in a tiny section of the wall, by the window. A part of me must have recognized that what I was doing (in pencil), was wrong, because all of the letters were nicely written from behind the thick curtains.

Years later, I made a similar, unintentional mistake, practicing my nerdish penmanship on a clean, adult sheet of college-ruled white paper. With blue permanent marker.

The ink leaked through the thin pages and onto our wooden dining room table. All the commercials for stain cleaners promised me that my scribbling would come out. Decades later, the faded blue marks remain.

***

I get asked a lot what I would like to next, what I would want to do instead, what else I’m good at, if I weren’t writing. But even before I realized that to write could be an occupation, this is always something that I just did. I gladly took up any extra writing assignment just for the fun of it. I read my brothers’ summer reading books, before they did, and afterwards. My quite stunning fall papers surprised my teachers to the point that they were certain that someone else had written my words for me.

I wonder where the words come from. I think it usually starts with a nugget of an idea, and then it gradually develops, one idea after another in a rolling succession. It’s building a tiny house from a set of Lincoln Logs. Everything fits together, you just have to get your pieces in the right order.

I was thinking about words on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when President Obama gave yet another speech, somehow trying to commemorate the day and inspire us all to greatness. I love how language and  a turn of a phrase can beat like your favorite song. But I’m easily swayed by words. I cry at commercials, tiny kittens playing, the end of basketball games. And as the President ramped up to the end of his speech, he placed at everyone’s feet a series of ideas. Ideas that the young version of me couldn’t have imagined. Ideas that were as misshapen and unknown to my tiny mind as the end of the alphabet.

“And that’s what the young people here today and listening all across the country must take away from this day,” he said. “You are America. Unconstrained by habit and convention. Unencumbered by what is, because you’re ready to seize what ought to be.

For everywhere in this country, there are first steps to be taken, there’s new ground to cover, there are more bridges to be crossed. And it is you, the young and fearless at heart, the most diverse and educated generation in our history, who the nation is waiting to follow.”

Sometimes I wonder if what I write is enough. If my words could change the world. Thinking about what’s next, and what I want to be, and what I could do, I scribble notes into an old, worn black notebook. It’s been through several countries with me, and there are only a few pages left. Then, I sent a text to my brothers.

“Do you remember when I stained the table with that blue Sharpie?”

They both respond within minutes: “Vaguely…I have a horrible memory.” “No one remembers that stuff but you.”

What is it about memory that clings to us? My view of the past so informs my present and my future that the idea of making complex decisions, any decision, can seem insurmountable. I hope it’s easier for everyone, for the rest of the memory keepers, but I know it’s not.

“I had an idea,” I told my brothers. “I’ll work it out.”

The latent professor in me wants all of you to produce your best work, to reach for the perfect phrases, to relate a memory that contains your best and your worst.

It takes ages to craft a narrative that you can deliver in minutes. The important part, as all of these writers keep producing and exploring and finding their way, what we want to do at LitroNY, is to allow writers and readers to create and contribute to the literary landscape.

Send on your words. I want to know what you write, how you write it, and what inspires you. Let’s keep the conversation going.