Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bleeding In Style

Bleeding on the page is something that students of writing are taught not to do. “While she’s not bleeding on the page,” a professor might say of some essay, “she gets across her melancholy by selecting vivid details.” To bleed on the page is to release a bolus of emotion, an uncontrollable gush, a repetitive torrent of self-pity. I can’t illustrate it with published examples, perhaps because the sanguinary submissions were rejected. I can, however, give some examples from my own writing, since I started thinking about bleeding on the page after I noticed myself doing it in my notebook (I had also taken to writing about myself, occasionally, in the third person):
Having given up on sleep, the writer settled onto the couch with her notebook, writing quickly in cursive and slashing out forbidden letters, half-written names. The messier the better. At five words or so per line, the pages were covered quickly, making it seem as if she had “gotten out” more than she would have in a notebook with wider pages and less space between the blue squiggles.
            Bleeding on the page might seem like just a catchy phrase, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to connect many of the questions and doubts I had about writing, specifically, about style, which I would define as the way a writer chooses to present information or ideas to a reader.            
The antithesis of style, bleeding on the page involves no choice and serves no reader. A means of excreting misery, it has a certain literalness, as if rather than evoking woundedness, you provide a blood sample. Though this release may serve the author, it doesn’t consider the reader at all. In thinking about what was “wrong” with bleeding on the page, I came to appreciate style.
I’m sure that some proportion of readers will question my definitions–always great sources of confusion. I remember talking with friends on Friday night about who within our group of school acquaintances had “drunk the Kool-Aid.” After going on for a while about who had drunk it, we realized that we couldn’t agree on exactly what “having drunk the Kool-Aid” actually meant.
But however you define it, style is one of the most basic aspects of writing. To those who have drunk the—ehem, studied writing, it’s given that writers think about their audience and write in what, to the uninitiated, might seem a calculated way to communicate to that audience. I now know that all writing possesses style, even if the style mimics spontaneous speech or thought. Yet I did not always know that.
A college biology major, I wasn’t introduced to style until graduate school, where I studied journalism and read A Room of One's Own for my elective about essays. It did not make a good first impression.  
When I learned that Virginia Woolf’s celebrated essay, so conversational and spontaneous in tone, was more stylized than genuine, I felt as if I had just bitten into a beautiful apple and gotten a mouthful of wax. It seemed counterintuitive, like fake fruit or buying plastic flowers in the spring. Why should Woolf work to sound as if she’s just speaking her mind? Why should she labor, while preparing to deliver a lecture about women and fiction, to make it sound as if she just happened to recall the day when she walked along the river and then was told to stay off the turf and couldn’t use the library and then had a dinner of stewed prunes? Perhaps my true question was, or is, ‘You mean I can’t just write what I’m thinking and sound good?’
The attitude that leads to asking such a question is, I think, the same one that leads to bleeding on the page, some blend of selfishness and naïveté. There was a time in my writing life when no distinction lay between what I wrote for myself, in my diary, and what I wrote for publication, since I had published almost nothing, and the things that I did intend to publish were rejected. Writing was just writing and I tried, in my naïve way, to make it good writing, which I defined as saying what I thought in the clearest way possible. Implicitly, I meant “the way that seems clearest to me.” As “writing was writing,” my voice was my voice. I thought of it as something to develop, like a muscle, and that once it was mature, the words it chose would be the right ones. Bleeding on the page epitomizes this way of writing: its aim is self-expression, not communication.
Consciously or not, I had imagined or hoped that Woolf and David Foster Wallace, another extemporaneous-sounding writer, had developed their voices so that when they sat down to let their thoughts wander, what came out was A Room of One’s Own or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The idea of writing in a particular way to have a particular effect on an audience struck me as deceptive and manipulative. I felt duped to learn, for example, that Woolf wasn’t displaying genuine modesty when she suggested that the reader or listener could “throw the whole of it into the wastepaper basket” but, rather, was stooping to make that reader feel at ease.
Alas, it’s true: Virginia Woolf is not really making conversation in A Room of One’s Own; her epistolary essay Three Guineas is not a real letter; A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again isn’t actually David Foster Wallace’s minute-by-minute thoughts about his time on the cruise ship, provided by some sci-fi thought-transcription service. Santa Claus is not real, either. Style can feel like deception on one level. On the other hand, everyone should know that pieces of writing are just pieces of writing, essays, composed at desks and tables, meant to communicate certain ideas to readers. To make them seem like conversations or diary entries or stream-of-consciousness thoughts or anything requires style.
            Maybe style is less add-on than necessity. Without it, all a writer can do is confess immediate feelings, which, in the extreme, is exactly what bleeding on the page is.
I’m trying to forget you. I think about you every time I pick up a book or a pen or…I would not have tried to cry on your shoulder. But my cool letters lie: I cry about you on other people’s shoulders.
Confession has its limits. Even when high emotions are involved, something beyond literal confession is necessary in order to capture the grief of fictional characters or to recall our past selves or to temper present grief to levels befitting a public persona.
Me 1: This is going on and on. I’m not sure what this is. As literature, it is bleeding on the page. 
Me 2: But I am bleeding! Why not put it on the page? 
Me 1: Go to a hospital.
Bleeding on the page has more than limits: it has real problems. It is not written at a desk after breakfast; it’s written in the middle of the night, between bouts of crying, and this is not an advantage but a handicap.
Writing from emotion is something Virginia Woolf has quite a lot to say about, and I have come to agree with her stance. Woolf thinks that it is wrong to write in a state of high emotion because it prevents one from “think[ing] of things in themselves.” In a vivid scene from A Room of One’s Own, Woolf goes to the library to research women and fiction and, as she reads tomes with titles like The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, she starts to doodle her impression of the author, a man whose “expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.” She later gives these volumes up for “worthless” because “they had been written in the red light of emotion and not in the white light of truth.”
The failure to think of things on their own is not unique to men or to history. In the past (A Room of One’s Own was published in 1929), Woolf believes, resentment hobbled women's writing by getting in the way of clear thinking. Charlotte Bronte, she writes, may have had this problem. Woolf quotes a passage from Jane Eyre and then comments that its sentences seem to contain some barred emotion trying to escape: “If one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters.” Today, women still write of themselves from defensive positions in “explaining” their choices.
In the scribblings that punctuate this essay—“writing quickly in cursive and slashing out forbidden letters, half-written names”—I am guilty of a similar crime. This notion of “getting out” something by writing is exactly what Woolf advises against. But hold on: Woolf was talking about published books, here. I am talking about a diary. Isn’t it okay to be self-centered in your own private notebook? I don't think so, both because, as I said, I tend to hold all my writing to the same standards and because being in an emotional state, period, is bad for writing. “I think about you every time I pick up a book or a pen.” Oh dear. The ideal writer, in Woolf’s view, has nothing to get out, no misery to excrete, and thinks of nothing but her subject when she picks up her stylus. As Mary Gordon writes in her 1981 foreword to A Room of One’s Own, “The clarity of heart and spirit that [Woolf] attributes to writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen who have expressed their genius ‘whole and entire’ demands a radical lack of self that might be required of a saint.”
Virginia Woolf thought that writing with a clear head was essential and bleeding on the page, anathema. But if you are writing with a clear head, then emotions you do express have to be fabricated, recreated, and the argument against bleeding on the page becomes an argument for style.
I began to wonder what would happen if a writer chose not to bleed on the page to but to write “in the style of” bleeding on the page. I think that in Woolf’s view, the only acceptable time to write in a “bleeding on the page style” is when one is not at all upset but one’s character, including the narrator of a first-person essay, is. For Woolf, style has is not just about aesthetics; it has an almost moral element.
I'm not going to go into Susan Sontag's ideas on style, but I can't resist mentioning here that Sontag believed that in order for an act to be moral, it had to involve choice. In her essay "On style," she discusses the way even art that seems transgressive is moral because it develops one's sensibility and extends our bounds of thought. "It is sensibility," she continues, "that nourishes our capacity for moral choice and prompts our readiness to act, assuming that we do choose, which is a prerequisite for calling an act moral, and are not just blindly and reflexively obeying."  Writing with style, that is, writing deliberately, is the moral way, in that view, while bleeding on the page is not.
Anyway, style may be necessary, obligatory and the alternative to bad writing. But what’s good about it? I need to know because something still bothers me about the whole thing: I still don’t like the idea of fake flowers. Maybe the problem lies in the analogy. The writer of stylized words isn’t buying sentences off the shelf; the writer is creating them. Maybe instead of comparing stylized writing to fake flowers from the dollar store, a better analogy would be to hand-painted blossoms. There, the advantage of a style is clear. It lets the artist create things as they choose instead of accepting what reality provides. Wouldn’t you rather have Van Gogh’s sunflowers?
Style lets a writer tailor her prose, and one way to do that is to write for a particular audience:  to think about readers already know, what information you can give them and what kind of language they are likely to respond to. In that way, style, which I once saw as manipulative, seems accommodating.
It can also convey ideas by embedding metaphors in the very structure of a piece of writing. For example, I once wrote an essay (unpublished) where some parts were in the style of a play. I had thought about making it a play altogether and was advised against it. I wasn’t a playwright, and the essay would not have worked well as a play. Yet giving it that style improved the essay because it helped me show the reader that what was happening was like a play. By combining the forms, I gave the piece more wiggle room and leeway to be its own thing. It was admittedly not quite a play and not quite a memoir and I hope that, in the reader’s mind, it finds a legitimate existence somewhere between the two.
On the subject of metaphor: In the introduction to The Broken Estate, a collection of James Wood’s literary criticism, Wood says something about fiction that expresses the power of creating something in the style of another. Wood describes a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Two parent characters, each in a lidded bin, are talking to their son, Hamm, through their servant, Clov. It's a surreal situation. When the mother, Nell, dies, and no more sound issues from her bin, Wood comments on how much it moves him even though Nell isn’t a real mother, even though the scene is “not quite” like reality: “This ‘not quite’ is a big enough connection between my real world and Beckett’s imagined world,” he writes.  “Perhaps what this scene reveals is that representation needs only a very small point of connection, and the smaller the point of impact, the more acute the effect.”
What is it about this "small point of connection" that gives it such potency? Maybe the answer lies with the reader’s imagination. The more abstract the art, the more the reader or audience member can fill in. Everyone has a unique connection to a piece of art—everyone will connect to Endgame’s parents, Nell and Nagg, in a slightly different way because they draw on different memories of different parents, which they can superimpose on the abstract figures onstage. The abstract is more accessible than the literal.
Style is, in some way, a form of abstraction. Something “in the style of” something else is “not quite” like the real thing but evokes it, limns it. Maybe literalness is the ultimate fault of bleeding on the page. It is not Virginia Woolf's spider web of fiction “attached ever so lightly, perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners,” four small points of connection to reality. Bleeding on the page is so bound to real life that it seems, to use Woolf’s description of science, “dropped like a pebble on the ground.” Woolf was writing about fiction, but I think this concept applies to essays, too; though they are more fact-bound than fiction, essays are still works of art.
The bleeding-on-the-page essay cannot choose when to touch down: it is practically bent over, burdened by its literalism. I remember getting a graded essay back from a teacher and seeing “too much” written where I had added one detail too many. If one extra detail weighs down an essay, then you can image the sagging of an essay that bleeds on the page.
How would a “bleeding on the page” style be different?  It would show the reader, a particular reader, what heartsickness is like, presenting a birds-eye view of the diarist on the couch, not just a transcript of her writings. It would give just the right number of details and leave room for the reader’s imagination to do its job. It would be written not in a state but in Woolf’s “white light of truth.”
I wish I could be more dramatic about the end of my journey toward style, but in fact, I came to realize these things not while walking along a river, not at gunpoint, not while flipping through books at the British Museum, especially not crying over a notebook. Yes, I read Woolf, Wood and Beckett; yes, the occasional idea came while jogging alongside cornfields, but I often couldn’t remember the good idea when I got home from my run. The real ‘ahah’ moments about style and bleeding on the page came at a desk writing an essay.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wayne Koestenbaum’s Descriptions

I distinctly remember, in college, going to talk to my creative nonfiction professor, suggesting that I write a personal essay about my mother, and the professor pointing out that my love for my mom (which was the gist of it) would not an essay make. “How about my favorite piece of music? How about ballet class pianists? Music boxes?” I would later ask myself in a similar vein. Since then, I’ve explored plenty of conflicts and tensions in my writing, but I’ve held onto that desire to write about things I love. That’s why Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s & Other Essays (2013) makes me so happy.
With titles such as “Hart Crane’s Gorgeousness,” “Frank O’Hara’s Excitement,” “Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sentences,” and “Roberto Bolaño’s Tone,” some large proportion of his essays in this collection are about things he likes and why he likes them, chronicles of the search for that telling though not obvious detail that makes a work pop. In one of Koestenbaum’s essays, “Epitaph on Twenty-Third Street,” a paean to a poet, he describes waking up one day with this task in mind: “My aesthetic health depends on describing accurately what is remarkable about James Schuyler’s poetry.” Granted, he’s not writing about his mom; he is writing about works of art, features of culture that many relate to and anyone can Google. Still, it gratifies me that he writes about the things he adores. 
In this cup-half-full approach, Koestenbaum is following Susan Sontag’s advice for criticism as expressed in her 1964 essay “Against interpretation.” Sontag argues against looking for hidden meaning and metaphorical equivalents in artwork. As alternatives to hermeneutics, she recommends "more attention to form in art," and adds that "equally valuable would be acts of criticism that would supply a really accurate, sharp, loving description of the appearance of a work of art."
Let me say up front that Koestenbaum is wont to interpret, particularly when it comes to poetry, and in that respect, he is certainly not following Sontag’s advice. It’s the latter part of Sontag’s recommendation, the idea of a “loving description,” that Koestenbaum exemplifies in many of his writings and most strikingly in “Cary Grant, Nude,” in which Kustenbaum imagines himself in the room face-to-face with the Cary Grant portrayed in a series of paintings by Kurt Kauper. Koestenbaum describes the paintings, formally and in great detail via this imagined meeting between him and the actor. The results are often funny.
Koestenbaum never lets us forget that “Cary Grant Nude” is a painting, and his descriptions can be patently formal: 
“Formally, the painting’s principle members are rectangles: fireplace bricks; wedge of tile on which Cary Grant stands; sections of white mantelpiece mirror; segments of bureau; outlet; baseboard; book spine. Cary Grant’s head is itself a rectangle, as is the trim portion of abdominal infrastructure we glimpse through his skin. His tan line reveals the ghost of rectangular bathing trunks.” 
But we're formally describing someone with a boxer tan. Humor emerges from the clash of the formal and the mundane. Another source of laughs is that what seems normal in a painting can seem ridiculous in real life. In the first section of the piece, called "Cary Grant Nude by the Fireplace," Koestenbaum refers to Kauper's "Cary Grant#1." Koestenbaum describes the painting as if he is standing in the painter’s place but the imagined scene is not the painting of a portrait but something quotidian. Cary Grant just happens to be "nude":
“I never expected to see Cary Grant nude. 
I’m not turned on; he’s not hirsute."
 Koestenbaum's observations:
          “His right tit has begun to sag.          
          Someone has groomed his pubic patch, shaved his balls, powdered them with baby talc.            
          His long, expressive fingers appear deft as a fey banker’s, an insurance executive’s. I picture these hands writing Wallace Stevens’ poems.”
In looking at a painting, the nudity, the grooming of the subject's genitals, hardly register. Yet to encounter such things on a regular day would of course be bizarre. In the second section, “Cary Grant Nude Walking Toward Me,” based on "Cary Grant#3," Koestenbaum makes a similar juxtaposition: “I can almost feel how warm this palazzo must be, to allow Cary Grant to walk around nude,” Koestenbaum writes, as if Grant isn’t posing for a portrait but just hanging out, naked. But Koestenbaum doesn’t say naked. He uses, and reuses again and again, the word 'nude,' the artistic equivalent of unclothed. The word keeps the reader with one foot in the world of the painting even as the rest of the essay has us imagining the odd scene between Koestenbaum and Grant.

In interpreting the paintings, Koestenbaum obviously goes against Sontag's main thread of advice in "Against interpretation." Alternate meanings emerge everywhere; for example, in "Cary Grant Nude on the Daybed," based on the aptly-named "Cary Grant #2," a cigarette continues the line of a penis and an ashtray stands in for an anus or a urinal. Wrinkles in the blanket parallel the ashtray/anus/urinal. 
Another layer of symbolism is the cracked open window with its “black curved lever [that] allows the eye to consider opening the window that will never open. That lever’s black curve, almost alphabetic, or like a newly invented piece of punctuation, doesn’t touch the sea’s horizon line, though it almost does. That averted intersection arouses erotic expectancy.” He finds other almost-touchings in the painting: “The fact that his elbow will never touch the curtain means that I as viewer (or as the one who is seduced by Cary Grant) will never adequately grasp the painting’s meanings, will never make my peace with realism.” Nor will he sleep with Cary Grant. Koestenbaum sleeping with Cary Grant is a metaphor for fully appreciating a work of art. A meta-metaphor.
         But I don't mean to criticize Koestenbaum for interpreting art; I would argue that since interpretation is part of the way that Koestenbaum appreciates artwork, it is integral to any "loving description" of it.
On the other hand, "loving" is not exactly the first word that comes to mind when I think of Susan Sontag's criticism: "arch" and "harsh" come more readily. But Sontag suggests description over interpretation, not praise over criticism. Before "loving," Sontag requires descriptions to be "accurate" and "sharp."  Her writing has incredible nuance; in her articles, praise and criticism coexist. For example, "Notes on 'Camp'" is a kind and detailed description of what she calls a sensibility, but Sontag's views of it are not entirely positive: "I am strongly drawn to Camp, and almost as strongly offended by it. That is why I want to talk about it, and why I can." Hers is tough love. 

 I didn’t think much of "Cary Grant Nude" on first reading. It seemed like a clever conceit. It also seemed like a lot of effort to devote to paintings that don't particularly interest me. Was Koestenbaum really so taken with these paintings? The practical motivation for the essay probably had to do with the publication of a book of Kurt Kauper paintings in which the piece first appeared. But for me, what’s remarkable about the essay is that I connect it to Sontag. Without that link, I would not be writing about it. Who knows if the connection existed in Koestenbaum's mind, but I find it sweet, a subtle tribute to a writer he revered. 
The essay "Susan Sontag: Cosmophage," also in his new book, is Koestenbaum's overt homage. He had these words for her: "Cosmophagic, Sontag gobbled up sensations, genres, concepts. She swallowed political and aesthetic movements. She devoured roles: diplomat, filmmaker, scourge, novelist, gadfly, essayist, night owl, bibliophile, cineaste...She tried to prove how much a human life--a writer's life--could include." 
Koestenbaum, too, is a cosmophage, who savors taste through sentences and takes care to compliment the cook. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Found Art: A Garden For Its Own Sake

"All art is quite useless," Oscar Wilde once wrote. Immanuel Kant thought of taste as disinterested satisfaction and beauty as having no external purpose. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Susan Sontag and doubtless others I haven't heard of elaborated this idea that art is something about which the viewer is emotionally detached. It's not only that art inspires or guarantees detachment in the viewer; he bears some responsibility for his experience: "However much the reader or listener or spectator is aroused by a provisional identification of what is in the work of art with real life, his ultimate reaction--so far as he is reacting to the work as a work of art--must be detached, restful, contemplative," Sontag wrote in her essay "On style."

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article about another kind of purposeless treasure. "The Good-for-Nothing Garden" portrays a man, James Golden, who raises a garden that is useless by design. "I don’t want it for anything utilitarian at all," he told the Times reporter, Michael Tortorello. Golden considers the purpose of New Jersey garden, called Federal Twist, to be "aesthetic, ornamental, even emotional” and sees gardens as places "to sit in, think about, look at the sky in, live in,'" Tortorello reported. Golden seems to respond to his garden the way great thinkers believe people should respond to art. 

Appreciating things for their own sake is endangered in a world in which more and more aspects of life come with a cost-benefit tag. People make attempts to justify art, but in doing so, they risk undermining it altogether. For example, a recently published study found, to speak very broadly, that reading literature makes people more empathetic. In an NPR story, study coauthor David Corner Kidd is quoted as saying, "We're having a lot of debates right now about the value of the arts, the value of the humanities," and goes on to say that empirical evidence, such as that provided by his study, about the value of the arts is missing from discussions of whether or not to fund them. But looking for the value of art is missing the point. Once you discover how art can be useful and approach it with that mindset, it's no longer art. In the same vein, once a person starts visiting a garden in order anything but "visit a garden," the aesthetic quality is weakened.

A potential retort to the "garden as art" idea is that Golden feels emotions in his garden and is therefore not emotionally detached. Yet to say that art involves emotional detachment doesn't mean that it inspires no feelings; on the contrary, art is known for tapping into our emotions. Emotional detachment means, I think, that the emotions inspired by art are separated from the world outside the artwork. When I listen to music, for example, I feel love...for music. It's a contained emotion. Paintings of nudes viewed as artwork, do not (in theory) inspire desire for sex--something external to the art--the way pornography does. There's also something to be said for a state of contemplation allowing feelings to rise to the surface, ones that may have little to do with the thing contemplated. 

Seeking nature as a place to think and reflect is so common it's cliché. Some poets really do get ideas on walks in the woods. Staring at the ocean is my form of natural contemplation, and it is an aesthetic, emotionally-detached experience. The movement of the waves has nothing to do with me. I don't affect the ocean (in that moment), and it won't react to me. A lobsterman might not be able to see it that way. 

To some extent, beauty is in the mindset of the beholder.

UPDATE: 10/21/13: In the last paragraph of "On style," Sontag addresses the idea of the aesthetic experience outside what's traditionally seen as art: "So many items in our experience which could not be classed as works of art possess some of the qualities of art objects. Whenever speech or movement or behavior or objects exhibit a certain deviation from the most direct, useful, insensible mode of expression or being in the world, we may look at them as having a 'style,' and being both autonomous and exemplary."

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Einstein of Ballet Class: Pianist Ai Isshiki

               Imagine the minutes before the start of ballet class. The dancers are lying on the specially-surfaced gray floor, the contours of their thin bodies hidden by baggy warm-up wear, limbs radiating out in all manner of stretching positions. Those who know each other talk quietly. Those new to class just stretch, and wait. An unusual figure appears in the studio, not dressed for class, and walks across the floor in street shoes. Soon, the character makes his identity clear: he sits down at the piano and begins his own method of warming up, which is strident and loud. It is the ballet pianist, the sole musician in a room full of dancers, at once essential and alienated.
Ai Isshiki is a ballet pianist. She is also a composer. She has been accompanying classes for four or five years, first in Boston, now, in New York, at such studios as the Mark Morris Dance Center, in Brooklyn, and Ballet Arts, in Manhattan. No archetype, Ai does not represent ballet pianists as a group; however, I know from dancing in classes she has accompanied that she is a remarkable individual, and I wanted to try to see ballet class from her perspective. I interviewed her in a café before Kenny Larson’s intermediate ballet class at Ballet Arts. These are my impressions, those of a sometimes dancer, of ballet pianists and of my time with Ai (pronounced like eye). 

          Ballet class is the bread and butter of dance, a daily ritual that underpins the athleticism and artistry that we see onstage. Class depends, in turn, on music. While some classes use recorded piano music, in cities, a live pianist is a standard and essential component of every class. It’s also a role that’s easily overlooked. The dancers watch and listen to the instructor, the only one who talks during the lesson; they watch, gesture and whisper to each other. Though they hear the piano, their only real interaction with the pianist may be a curtsy or bow during the clapping at the end of class.*

Class is a living, panting, grinning, sighing, sweating thing. The pianist's beat holds it all together, leading synchronized motion in a room of otherwise independent bodies. Body to body, class to class, sameness and individuality coexist. The sequence of combination types—pliés, tendus—is the same for every class, but the details vary. The teacher shows each combination, saying the steps in rhythm, and while the dancers try to memorize the routine, the pianist decides what to play. Then the dancers do the exercise on each side, and the process repeats, from combination to combination, barre to center, culminating with leaps from one corner of the room to the other, the “grand allegro.” Within the 90-minute ballet class, Ai may play 15 to 25 different pieces.

How does the pianist choose the music? It can be quite simple: There are books of ballet class music, with songs eight or 16 bars long and organized by exercise, and Ai bought one of these when she started playing for ballet classes. She was not content to play by the book for long. Ai is determined not to play the same thing twice throughout the day—a tall order when you play up to four classes daily, as Ai does.
“For a musician like me who doesn’t wanna repeat—anything—I just needed to have thousands of repertories. I went to the library every day—I worked at the Harvard library before this free score Internet developed—I went to the library and I copied.”  
Ai is attuned to how dancers respond to her music and chooses what to play based, in part, on her sense of the energy in the room. “I see air—it sounds creepy—I see air sinking down or spinning up whenever I play and then however dancers react to it.” As we talk, I start to see the studio as more than a floor to dance on but as this rectangular prism of energy in four dimensions: dancers move through three-dimensional space according to the meter of the pianist.
Different music “gives different feelings to the space,” Ai says. She remembers one teacher calling her, the pianist, “the Einstein of the place.” That teacher was Marcus Schulkind, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and founding director of Green Street Studios in Cambridge. I asked him about this phrase, and he explained that the pianist, by setting the tempo, determines the relation, or relativity, between time and space.
            “Maybe I can tell you how I got hooked,” Ai says, “the first time that I thought, ‘this is really cool.’” The class was going okay. The energy in the room was low. It was time for the grand allegro. Ai, who is also a composer, decided to try something: she started scoring the movements, playing a different motif for each step, instead of playing a tune. “The dancers, the energy came up and the air, I don’t know how you say, sparkled?” Ai tells me, clasping her hands to her chest in that classic pose of glee. “It was very good. The first time in the ninety minutes that the music and dance got in tune or gave each other something to inspire.”
This interaction with other people is something Ai craves as an artist. 
“I never wanted to be a ‘pianist pianist.’” Ai tells me.  It took a little while for her to explain to me what that meant.“You can do everything on piano. It’s not supposed to be an issue. You can cover the whole range of orchestra, which is wonderful but which is horrible because you don’t need anybody to play with you.” Ai, who also plays in a band and composes, likes to play with other people. Though in a dance class, Ai is the only pianist in the room, she isn’t exactly playing alone—she’s playing with the dancers. They are interdependent. Her music—time—affects their movements through space and, the reverse is also true.
"ai is a very wonderful accompanist," Marcus told me in an email. "good range of music and styles, very in the moment attentive and caring; very connected to the process and very sensitive to the structure and process of training.”

Ai is is seated, barefoot, at an upright piano made of blond wood in a rectangular room full of ballet dancers.

There is a handwritten sign on the piano:
“PLEASE Do Not play the piano so Hard
Be Gentle.”

On the piano’s stand, in place of a paper score, is an iPad.

Barre is over, and center is underway in Kenny’s class at Ballet Arts, which began right after our interview. It is time for the “petit allegro,” a series of foot-twisting small jumps.
“We’ll mark it with music,” Kenny says, snapping his fingers to indicate a tempo. “And.” Ai begins to play after Kenny gives the upbeat. “Two groups this tempo, two groups a little faster.” With a jump on every beat, a dancer can bounce up and down the whole time with what’s called “ballon.” If you don’t quite get the steps though, you feel stuck to the floor. After the dancers had all done the combination at the first tempo, Kenny claps a faster beat, and Ai immediately speeds up. It is a bit fast for the dancers, but that’s the point.

The pianist, sometimes in contrast to the dancers, is a professional. One of the reasons that it’s possible to overlook the pianist is that the pianist rarely messes up—noticeably.

The dancers gather in the back corner. Ai starts to play, and in groups of five or six, the dancers begin running, jumping, bouncing across the room. It is the grand allegro. Ai plays a piece so rousing that it looked like her left hand is bouncing up and down on the piano as the dancers leap; her hand completely flops over at the wrist as it comes high off the keys. The music rumbles with anticipation as one group finishes, with a split leap toward the front corner, and the next group gets into position.
At the end of the class, Ai puts on her sandals, walks across the studio past the dancers, stretching or going over tricky steps, and goes on to her next engagement.

* Of course, the ballet pianist is not always overlooked. Many teachers and students do acknowledge the pianist at the end of class. One teacher I know signals the start of each combination by thanking the pianist by name. Ai is greatly appreciated by the teachers and students she works with. Yet a coupling of mystery and necessity still hangs over my impressions of the ballet pianist as a figure. I'm lucky to have gotten to know Ai a little bit better.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Letters of Katie Crenshaw 08/05/13

Darling, 08/05/13
I finished Sophie’s Choice today. Quel livre! I want to know how much of it was true, how much imagined. It is autobiographical to some extent--the narrator is definitely a Styron character--though the story revolves around Sophie. I looked at a book of Styron’s letters today, and according to a timeline in the front of the book, Styron did meet a Sophie who survived Auschwitz. I really want to know if his Prospect Park apartment was actually pink. It seems too good to be true, such a wonderful detail.
       In early letters, Styron did things that all beginning writers probably do, such as send things to The New Yorker and ask professors for advice about where to submit to avoid making the decision oneself. This sticks out to me because I just read an article counseling would-be writers about how to submit their work. Submitters are advised to find journals that publish work either that they admire or that is similar to theirs; preferably both. Of course, you hope that your essay is great and original; unlike what the journal has already published but exactly like what it will publish in the next issue. 
     Alas, the literary journals are rather fiction heavy, which is hard for the memoirist/essay writer, especially since the personal essay gets the most flack of all. Fiction makes the personal public, they say, and the world loves fiction. Can I do it? Well, that’s another story. My personal essays have interesting forms, which is a plus.
       For the record, my childhood (teenhood, anyway) bedroom is sunflower/saffron/jaundice/mustard/tumeric/pollen in color. By the way, I’ll be sleeping in that room tomorrow night—vacation! I also lived in a chartreuse room for a year. Both color choices were mine; the latter was my paint job, too. My current enclosure is white with smoke stains.
       What could be the relation between pen as writing implement and pen as enclosure? Aside from the obvious. The Online Etymological Dictionary points out that pen and penitentiary have similar roots. OED says that Latin paenitere means “to cause or feel regret,” which has to do with Latin "paene," almost. So… the pen is regretful of its shortcomings? But there’s also a Latin root that means punishment. The pen inflicts painful punishment on writers and, sometimes, on subjects. If you think about this too long, another SEEMingly-related word may occur to you, particularly relevant to the Styron book. It has a different root, apparently. 
       Well, about the Styron letters: he kept up correspondence with an old prof. I imagine that, particularly before he was published, that magisterial encouragement was nice to have. Also, Styron abbreviates the literary Virginia W. as Va., which I find charming. He was a loyal Virginian.
       Oh darling, having you to write to is wonderful. I’ve been rather gloomy today, and I felt better as soon as I started taking notes.
       In Washington Square, a woman reading a comic book is interrupted by a men selling stickers and another selling sorrow. The two visitors don’t stop to talk to me, seated on a bench nearby. I think of commenting to the woman at how often people stopped to talk to her but realized that it would put me next in the line of accosters.
       A bagpiper is playing out of tune near the port-a-potties. Two reasons, both aural and nasal, that her audience is small.
       I finally went in Citarella, that fancy food store whose name always reminds me of citronella candles, particularly because the logo is orange. There's also some vague Cendrillon/citrouille/pumpkin wire crossing going on that makes orange seem appropriate. So at that store, I found an unusual food item to bring home to the folks. Waiting in line, I was in close quarters with a crowd of older women, which was unusual to me. I’m used to the public solitude of the subway and of the street, but because my local grocery, C-Town, has very short lines, I rarely experience that feeling in a supermarket. Plus, my hands are usually full, which prevents note-taking. Today, as I stood in line with my rare grain, a tiny little girl was pushing around a hand basket containing a package of meat, the sole item of her mother’s shopping trip, and getting in the way. She is at an age when you need a stroller not because the child can’t get around but because she can. Her mother picked her up, in the end. There was an old lady in a sundress. Not really much to report, but it interested me. Unlike at grocery stores from which people drive away, I got to watch the characters from the line issuing from the store with their white-and-orange bags and taking their next steps: turning right, waiting for buses and, like me, heading straight for subway solitude. 

Time to pack!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw: 07/31/13

Darling,                                July 31, 2013
Looking at my little calendar book, I just noticed that across from the date are two very tiny, rather long integers.* Today is 212/153. 212 days down, 153 to go this year. What an odd thing to iclude! It seems like a calendar for someone with an annual goal or someone having such a bad year that they are willing to believe the year number makes a difference. My birthday is 10 days away. 375 days till I turn 30. Tick, tock, tick, tock.
*I feel odd writing that word, integer—but William Styron uses esoteric synonyms for variety, and it works for him. A suntanned woman has a cupric back, for example, and Styron/Stingo really exhausted the thesaurus entry for ‘pink,’ since he lives in an apartment building where all the rooms, and furniture, too, are painted with Navy (?) surplus paint of that color, a hue rejected from the service due to its poor aptitude for camouflage.

This morning as I walked toward the subway, looking, I’m sure, like a teenager with my backpack, book and unstyled long hair reminiscent of those days, I passed the man carrying the surf-/ironing- board in its beige-and-black-striped bag! Back from a nice long weekend of ironing, eh? Lots of people are going to the beach, today, it seems. I saw a little girl carrying a pink plastic bucket in what they call the bowels of Union Square I happened to be reading a Coney Island scene at the time. 
The rest was good but not worth mentioning, mostly because I am no longer in letter-writing mode. Talk to you soon, my love. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Letters of Katie Crenshaw 07/29/13

Darling, 07/29/13
These days, I feel more and more in a hurry, a rush of something good. Lots to read, lots to write.
If you think of me, you might as well imagine me wearing loafers with little brass spikes on them. Spiky loafers. They are everywhere. I could carry a spiky purse to go with them. I recently dreamed that I met a woman whose hands were encrusted with faux diamonds. She wasn’t even engaged, she assured me.
Sophie’s Choice has hooked me. It seems to be one of those works that is both terribly sad and terribly funny. The beginning is hilarious, but I know what the title refers to.
By the way, do you know of a book called Under the Volcano? I first encountered it in Infinite Jest and thought it a made-up exaggeratedly depressing-sounding book in a list of such titles. Then I saw it on the display table at the bookstore today, near Sophie’s Choice, and again on page 13 of Styron’s novel.
Stingo, the narrator, is wonderfully brash, a proud smart-alec. Told that his lunchtime newspaper choice was too radical and that he should wear a hat to work, he donned his military beret and came back from lunch with The Daily Worker. How he makes fun of McGraw-Hill, publications, such titles as American Strip Miner, Pesticide News. His summaries of manuscripts he has reviewed cast them as failed versions of the Great American Novel: “Love and death amid the sand dunes and cranberry bogs of Southern New Jersey,” began one summary. And for a book about Kimberly-Clark:
 “As the romance of paper is central to the story of the American dream [says the writer], so is the name Kimberly-Clark central to the story of paper…many of its products—the most famous of which is undoubtedly Kleenex—have become so familiar that their very names have passed into the language…” He tries to make Kimberly-Clark out as a fundamental contributor to American prose. Maybe tragedy, in particular, I might add. 
Well, dear, I’d better put on my spiky bedroom slippers and get ready for bed. I'd love to read you those passages in person. 


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw 07/28/13

Darling, 07/28/13
This gray day, I read about the Styron family, edited and submitted my essay (you know the one) and ventured out after dinner with an umbrella to enjoy a rather upscale beer at Lillie’s Victorian Establishment followed by McDonald’s French fries. At home, the ants are the most exciting thing—they are rushing along the bottom of the dish cupboards, stopping for a second when they pass each other along the narrow route and exhibiting none of the awkwardness that people face when they try to walk in different directions.

 Wishing you fine, ant-free days,

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw: 07/27/13

Dear Darling,                      July 27, 2013
In Washington Square today, in addition to the usual acrobats performing feats of flexibility while standing on their hands, I saw a woman singing and playing accordion in the company of a golden bull. The bull, slightly taller than the woman, had a purple velvet mane and six or eight spindly human legs underneath it, one pair of which was, in turn, propping up a pair of green-checkered shorts. The woman and her songs called to mind the word bawdy with her thick build, her gypsy-like red skirt, its folds piled up like a bustle around her waist, her blonde hair a combination mohawk and dreadlocks and a singing voice close to a yell. People threw bills into her backpack to which she had fastened a cardboard “tip the bison” sign.
I was there on a park bench marveling at not being hot under my cardigan and reading the William Styron book, which I decided to buy after missing it once I had left the bookstore. I definitely have to read Sophie’s Choice. Have you read it? I am up to the founding of The Paris Review.
I keep meaning to try to write a very long sentence that spans a lot of space and time. By “a lot” of time, I mean something like 29 years. Subject? New York. In sixth grade, I sent away for School of American Ballet brochures, pasted them in my green notebook, and posted a subsequent letter to New York, the town where I would gleefully attend graduate school less than 10 years later to study not ballet but writing, saying that I hoped to be a student at SAB but, alas, was stuck in a remote New England town thirty minutes from the closest ballet class, an hour from violin lessons and, I would observe, once I started learning the language of ballet, time zones away from France and an entire astronomical unit from the sun, so could you please continue sending me souvenirs of my inexperience as a New York City ballet kid and perhaps also some letters of encouragement to my parents?
Alright mon cher, goodnight. I challenge you to write a longer sentence. It doesn’t have to be true.
Yours truly,

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw: July 26, 2013

Darling,                        July 25, 2013
Not much to report. Today I noticed how the science section of McNally Jackson is full of books with God in the title. The God Delusion. The God Problem. The God Particle. God Created The Integers. Perhaps scientists should be wary of defending themselves against religion if the result is bringing God into the science section. The question of whether or not God exists, an unanswerable one, should not be there, in my opinion. I think it’s okay for science to study the way religion affects people but not to debate whether or not religion is valid. I understand that science and religion lay claim to similar territory, just as the world’s religions all claim the Holy Land. In that way, it makes sense that they overlap. I have not checked out the religion section for its selection of books covering evolution, math and physics.
       I took myself out to eat tonight. Gnocchi with mushroom sauce on Prince Street T’was good. I think I’ll continue Infinite Jest and go to sleep.

Love you,


Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw July 25, 2013

Dear Darling,      July 25, 2013
- Have been going to a book discussion group at McNally-Jackson Books in SoHo. The discussion itself is open and book focused but, boy, this is a good place to people watch. I’m sitting in the café, and the person next to me, an Abercrombie beige raincoat over her chair, just asked the man behind the counter if she could charge her phone. "Of course, the world will accommodate me." She had one of those water-resistant solid-color bags with brown leather straps and wore lace-up leather shoes, jeans, a styled-looking belt and a very fresh-looking blue blouse with white designs all over it.
The other day at the bookstore, I saw a woman with Barbie-doll legs made to look longer under short shorts and long straight hair that hung, poised, over a white mesh sweater. She wore a white black-banded fedora and had a little dog whose grayish-white fur looked sort of like what you would see on a stuffed-animal lamb. Incredibly put together and, of course, beautiful. "My outfit is perfect, and I have a dog, which causes me no mess or embarrassment, despite my preference for the color white." 
I was in the café today trying, and failing, to come up with story ideas. I gave up and looked at books downstairs near "Memoir" and "French literature"— the beginning of The Year of Magical Thinking, a page of Proust. Worried about bending the new books, I decided to see if they had the Didion memoir at Housing Works. They didn’t, so I started reading Alexandra Styron’s biography of her father, William Styron. I’d been interested in The New Yorker review of it and a few other bios of famous authors written by their children, including Greg Bellow's biography of his father, Saul Bellow.
According to James Wood, Bellow's book tries to be a story of the son accepting his father’s neglect but is “less a memoir than a speaking wound.” I suppose that would be okay if Bellow were trying to portray and discuss his woundedness… the problem is that Greg Bellow thought he was writing a story of coming to terms and actually wrote what Wood called “a child’s complaint.” Also, Wood says that the biography makes it seem like Bellow really didn’t understand his father. Bellow thinks he is telling the inside story of his father's life (as opposed to his work) but doesn't fully grasp that Bellow’s work, which Greg Bellow sort of tried to downplay out of jealousy, was his life. "He hardly ever made beef stroganoff for me," the eulogy might have gone--remember that whole uproar? Wood's review was sympathetic to the biographer, despite his criticisms of the biography. It must be hard to have your personal struggles pointed out by a literary critic. 
Hey--Didion said something about how throughout her career, she hid her true feelings behind increasingly sturdy enamel, inserting meaning between the lines. She nade a conscious effort not to reveal herself and thought about what her words implied Her point was that in The Year of Magical Thinking, she was more direct than usual about her own feelings.  
When I write, I try to acknowledge my biases so that they don’t come out accidentally. That doesn’t absolve a writer for whatever unfinished business she has, but it’s better than nothing.
For example, I’ll say it straight up: I miss you very much and wish you had been with me at the café today! I would have dressed up, and we would have made a fine couple for others to stare at. I have many components of the short-short outfit and could buy one of those hats on any street. More seriously, I was not feeling poised, sitting there devoid of ideas, and of course I envied the people who seemed on top of the world. 
It has been cool all day after so much heat! I had hot coffee this morning and tomato soup with grilled cheese for dinner. Now I’m hot in my wool socks, but you get the idea. 
Write soon! I don’t feed on telegrams like Katherine Mansfield, but if I fed on email, I’d be starved or, at best, full of junk. 


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Letters of Katie Crenshaw July 24, 2013

Dear Darling, July 24, 2013                                                                                                   

On my way to the subway today, I passed a man carrying what looked like a surf board. Surfing? In Williamsburg? I then decided it was probably an ironing board, and that struck me as equally funny. Whatever it was, it was in a cloth case with a drawstring, and he had other things in with it. Men iron too, I know…I guess!
            In the bookstore today, I came across a book of letters from Katherine Mansfield to John Middleton Murry. “When I got out of bed for cigarettes,” she begins her account of the day. I get out of bed and make coffee, but I don’t like to admit that I'm getting out of bed FOR coffee. It's true, though, in my case. Many cigarettes and descriptions of food follow, in the letter, all of which seem wonderful to me, since it’s not the kind of thing people pay attention to these days. Maybe on vacation, but not on just a regular day.
            I am waiting for email, email that will either eliminate or fortify one of the roadblocks to publishing my essay—you know, the one I’ve been working on for a year now. I send out these emails convinced that people will reply right away and excited at the prospect. Then they don’t. I know you’ll write back.
            And what did I have for lunch? A Reuben sandwich at a metal table outside Le Basket. The man sitting near me had a Listerine bottle full of liquor, or amber-colored mouthwash, anyway. I’ve always wanted to eat at Le Basket and sit outside, maybe with a single beer. It would be so Le Basket—a charming mockery of elegance. Listerine al fresco! I’m glad to have finally done it, but I have to say, I don’t like feeling alone and vulnerable to the other people sitting alone at tables outside.
I don’t think I told you: The other day at Think Coffee, a woman was sitting alone with her cup when I went inside, turned in profile to me, very still--the only person on that side of the patio, now that I think of it. When I came back with my glass of wine, she was still there. I sat down and got out my laptop and from behind me, in a very still, very smooth voice, I heard: “That’s a nice case. Did you make it yourself?” It was just a regular laptop case with a zipper. She had a thin-skin face and hardly moved a muscle when she spoke. “No,” I said. “Thank you,” I added, to be polite. I worried when she spoke to me, but there was nothing I could do. I heard her getting up behind me. “You’re nasty,” I think she said. I didn’t look at her. When she left the outside seating, she walked past me again to continue down the sidewalk, and I just hoped she wouldn’t stop and turn around. She didn’t.
Well, darling, I’ve got to get back to work. I’m sitting up here at a table looking down on the people entering Housing Works Bookstore. It’s like the Harvard Coop but with used books, with its curving staircases and its second-floor balcony. It’s cold in here. I brought a sweater but haven’t put it on. You would like this place.

How I wish I had you to eat al fresco with! We would eat lunch somewhere cheap and then have dinner at a real restaurant, with wine. I want to try the seafood place near my apartment. Soon. Please write and tell me what you had for lunch and whatever else I am missing. 



PS: I'm so jealous of Katherine Mansfield. Not of her husband, rest assured; jealous of her... temperament. I wonder why she doesn't write, "The sun was peeping out of a cloud like a face under a monk's hood, but..." But. But. But...I don't know what I'm going to write next. But I don't know how I'm going to pay the bills next month. But the person I wanted to interview didn't answer my letter, and I don't know whom else to ask. So many possible buts. These things don't register in a romantic outlook, I suppose. Or if they register, it's "Oh darling, have absolutely no idea what I'll write next, and my confidence is sapped; I'm empty. I see the sun making shutter patterns on the wall, but who cares? I had orange marmalade on my toast. But who cares? A cardinal was singing outside my window, and I told it to piss off or to go do what birds do."" Somehow the reservations would lack reserve. I'll try to do better next time. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Elements of Syle

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"On one side a dictionary lies open on its own table; on the other his seafoam Olivetti manual." - Barbara Thompson Davis in Paris Review's interview with fiction writer Peter Taylor

"It's the birthday of American grammarian William Strunk Jr. (1869), born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was an English teacher at Cornell for 46 years, and edited works of Shakespeare and James Fenimore Cooper. In 1918, he self-published a little book for the use of his students, called The Elements of Style." - Writer's Almanac, of American Public MediaJuly 1, 2013, 

Every writer must have at hand that essential book, so slim of girth, yet so full of insight. The Seafoam Manual, self-published by Olivetti, is now a classic of writing instruction. 

"Omit needless seafoam," it famously advises. "For example," it continues, "in The Little Mermaid, write, 'And then Ariel married the prince,' not 'And then the sea witch's promise came true and the Little Mermaid turned into seafoam.'" 

I would have to say that Peter Taylor, of all stylists,  really exemplified good literary use of seafoam.  He never, ever had a mermaid turn into seafoam. 

The  Little Mermaid is an example of gratuitous seafoam in literature. The appropriate use of seafoam, on the other hand, can really enhance your prose. 

And its uses even extend beyond literature. When Olivetti was penning his masterpiece, he probably couldn't even conceive of the idea seafoam would one day be sold in a can for the purpose of keeping engines lubricated yet also moisture-free. "I love this stuff! I put it in everything from my 77' [sic] Vette to my snowblower," writes Jesse G. on the Sea Foam product website.

Take another practical field: home decoration. has handy instructions for using seafoam green to enhance the appearance of a room. "This green, which hovers near the blues on the color wheel," writes Sarah Van Arsdale, "can be a perfect antidote for a room that's top-heavy with warm, dark colors. ...You can see how the placement of the green sofa provides a refreshing, lighter color, without drawing attention to itself."

Van Arsdale's second novel, Blue, won a Peter Taylor Prize. Like Taylor, Van Arsdale probably kept her Seafoam Manual handy when she was writing her novel. I also would surmise that her editor changed the title from Seafoam to Blue, but you never know. 

So English majors, listen up: if you read your Seafoam Manual and play your cards right, you may have a future in automobile maintenance, home decoration or even, perhaps, literature!

I wonder if that spray stuff works on typewriters

NB: For purposes of humor, this post mixed facts and quotations, which were attributed, with made-up stuff. Olivetti did not write a seafoam manual. Quotations other than those attributed to Olivetti are real, and the novel Blue did indeed win a Peter Taylor Prize.
Also NB: "Seafoam Olivetti manual" is most sensibly interpreted to mean a non-electric typewriter in an unassuming shade of blue made by the Olivetti company.