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.