Monday, September 24, 2012


Absolution Olive Streeter never could get a good answer out of her mother.

In response to a question about a certain piano piece that Abby just couldn't get right, Mary would spout off about meter and timing and the importance of counting off methodically in one's head while playing--one two three, one two three--in a way that, for Abby, thoroughly eliminated the joy of playing.

And yet when Abby asked why she was given a name that sounded like a daytime soap opera with characters named England and Cashmere, her mother would say, "I'm sure you know it was nothing more than that I liked the sound of it and wrote it down on a piece of paper after you were born. Now try it again from this measure and don't forget to count."

It was obviously no use asking her mother, and the one time Abby asked her father Tom, he'd smiled and said, "Is that really your name? That's awful," and rubbed her head in a way that ruined the perfect part in her hair.

Then, before anyone knew what was happening, her father moved out because they had "grown apart" after seventeen years of marriage, and no one but Abby seemed to think it was odd to say that, since things don't really grow together or apart but up, which left Abby to wonder whether her mother or father was left behind over time, or which of them had separated out like coagulated bits of day's old milk.

This time, when Abby asked her mother a question--why did Dad leave, just walk out the door like that with a bag over his shoulder and his wallet in his mouth while we were watching reruns of Boy Meets World with the sound as loud as it can go and no one even noticed what had happened until Excalibur started barking at the door like he does when something is wrong and I finally looked over at you and you were fast asleep and I had to shake you awake to ask you why why why--her mother said nothing, and Abby's sister Talia looked at Abby like she was the stupidest person on earth and said, "What the hell is wrong with you?" which is exactly what Abby wanted to ask everyone else.


Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Sheldon Conch and the Mysterious Note

I am fascinated by anonymous letters and notes.

So when I saw this random scrap of paper lying on a countertop at Ikea, I folded it up and put it in my pocket. My husband thought I was weird for doing this, but I had to know why someone would leave a note like this around. I knew that it was from something and I had to check it out.

Well it turns out that if you search for "some people say my head is too big for my body, then I say: compared to what?" the first result is a series of "short films" called Marcel the Shell with Shoes On.

I had seriously never heard of this little guy before until this note and I am so glad that I finally did.

There's a second part too that you should watch!


Monday, April 30, 2012

The path I lay

this is love. this is fragility. this is me in the standing-room-only arena saying your name over and over. the crowd chants, recognizing the declaration as a universal appeal to all hearts from the places inside us where our stories are purple, are yes and infinite. your face crowds my mind and I find I cannot bear to speak, not even to say your name. but now others will say it for me. you may see this as an example of gross pandering but I see it as a most sublime display of worship. they worship love as I worship the way you say forever. this is the reckoning of our silver ecstasy. this is the beginning of the path I lay, one brick each time I say your name. two bricks each time you answer.


Monday, April 9, 2012

Writing, Character Inspiration, and Pinterest

So... I discovered Pinterest...

And now my life is centered on making dinner from recipes I found on Pinterest, emailing my husband funny pics I found on Pinterest while he's at work, pinning people and places and things that remind me of my story ideas on Pinterest... etc, etc, etc.

Now, major time suckage aside, Pinterest is a pretty cool place for writers to be.

I've started following any other writers I can find and they all seem to have at least one Pinboard dedicated to their craft. Maybe it's called "The Writing Life," or "The Creative Life," or "Novel Inspiration."

I have one called IDEA BOX that I am very much in love with.

However, what has become very obvious as I browse these writerly boards and pin more pictures and ideas to my own board is that many writers have ideas of what their main characters look like from people that they have actually seen before.

Maybe it's the lead singer of a band they recently discovered (guilty), that kid that longboards down your street at approximately 3:07 PM every weekday (guilty), or the small forward for your favorite NBA team (guilty). Wherever these people are seen, they can serve as great inspiration as the writer tries to create characters that are well-rounded and interesting.

However, what bothers me about this is that many writerly folks will post a picture of a famous actor or actress, or a beautiful person who is clearly a model, and will write underneath, "This is what Gray looks like," "An older version of Genevieve," etc.

I feel like most writers have done this at some point. Most likely their main characters do not look EXACTLY like the beautiful person from the picture, but the fact that the beautiful person serves as inspiration for most characters is annoying to me.

Because when a reader picks up a book written about a main character they identify with very closely, they imagine themselves in that character's life, as if they were a real-live person. Often, they actually imagine and feel that they ARE that character. This transmutation is such a real feeling and it is one that I love to experience as a reader and that I hope to create as a writer.

However, what if those readers knew that the characters they identify with so easily were created by the writer with an appearance akin to perfection, based on a model found in the pages of Vogue, a character from Vampire Diaries, or another beautiful person who is essentially PAID TO BE BEAUTIFUL?

I feel like this realization would break the spell cast by the writing itself, by the act of reading itself, because the reader finds that they were identifying with a person who, if they were part of this world, would be gracing the pages of fashion magazines and could star in their own reality TV show, if they were so inclined.

Does anyone else see a problem with the way that writer's today portray their characters or love interests? Does anyone else feel that characters should be just as flawed PHYSICALLY as they are personally or emotionally?


Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

I've never read a character analysis like yours. Many, yes, have been good; some have had moments of eloquence or panache. 
But yours is exceptional from the first to the last word.  
Not only do you expose Howard's character, but you do so in a clever, astute, and stylish way that rivals the novel's own distinctive flair and intelligence. 
I hope—I really hope—that you work as a creative writer, Alyssa, because you sure have a gift. 
A remarkable pleasure—really fine work.

The assignment was to analyze a character from one of the novels we read in Contemporary British Lit in question-and-answer format. I chose Zadie Smith's On Beauty and its protagonist, Howard Belsey. Because I'm lazy and I think rules are for suckers, I wrote a story at the last minute.

I teared up reading this response in class. I almost got hit by a car in the parking lot, trying to read this and walk to my car at the same time.

I took another class from this professor, and not just because his response to my paper was the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.

We were assigned another character analysis in this class, Modern British Lit, and again I chose to write a story instead of write the paper as assigned (boring). This time, I chose Richard from Mrs. Dalloway.

Here is the response:

I would've liked to have seen a preamble and analysis, but that wish amounts to mere carping in the face of this extraordinary, compelling work of imagination and critical thinking.  
You've got sure talent, Alyssa.

I have no idea if he was just being nice, my professor. I have no idea how much merit he really saw in my writing.

I worry that he really thought that most of it was crap, but saw that I was a bit shy and reserved and decided to save me from self-destruction by praising me, incessantly.

But for a few moments at least, while I read those responses from a professor I greatly respect and admire, I feel amazing. I feel like a talent that the world should know about.

I feel so much like a writer.

So thank you, nameless professor. Thank you for making me recognize something within myself that I should have seen all along. The need to tell stories, the need to say something, say anything, the need to be read.

The need to write.

I will never get over it.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Are you there Muse? It's me, Alyssa.

There are a lot of different ways that people describe inspiration.

It comes from a muse, like Stephen King's guy in the basement. It comes from a genius, a fleeting spirit, like Elizabeth Gilbert explains in her awesome TED talk. It's something that you're born with. It's something that you look for, work for, sweat for.

These days, I feel like my muse is a toddler, an a-hole that flips people off on the freeway for no reason, a rabbit in a snare, and an overall terrible human being/spirit/mysterious entity... depending on the day.

Example: I set aside a few hours to write. I pick up a book and read for inspiration. I try to jot some lines. I read through a million blogs about the writing life, character development, and how to create a believable villian.

But I don't get much done. This time is pretty much wasted.

Another Example: I sit down on the couch to work (I write blogs like this from home for a living... doesn't sound so cool now, does it?) I tell myself I won't stop until I'm done for the day. I will not write. I will not get sidetracked by writer blogs or book reviews or try to place another 12 books on hold at the library.

I tell my muse to sit in the corner, be quiet, pencils down, do not talk to your neighbor. I tell it to save its ideas for later. I tell it not to bother me.

What happens then? The muse is quiet for awhile, I get some blogs done. I blast the new Sleigh Bells album and am pretty productive, if I say so myself.

Then the muse raises its hand.

I ignore it.

It starts jumping up and down like Hermione in Defense Against the Dark Arts. I tell it to shut up. I put on blinders and headphones and turn the music up too loud. I ignore it.

It jumps up on the desk and shouts the most spectacularly tempting crap. "What if you changed the point of view on that story you've been trying to write?!" It yells. "What if everything you say was recorded in your brain and you could read through the transcript of your entire life?!"

I sit and stare at it. I am so pissed off that the muse chooses this moment to bring me the most excellent ideas. The type of ideas I was hunting during the set "writing time" I had yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.

I pull off my headphones and I think about shouting to the muse, "Where were you yesterday you lazy piece of crap?! That was your designated time and you were giving me the freaking SILENT TREATMENT."

But the ideas are too good. I put the laptop away and I take out my notebook and I choose an especially colorful pen (hot pink) and I start to write.

I don't work for the rest of the day.

Now I have no idea how to set aside time to write when my muse/annoying-kid-in-the-corner-with-Great-Ideas-at-all-the-wrong-times refuses to obey. Maybe I'll try to trick it next time. I'll sit down to write a blog about "real estate West Newbury" when I really mean to get an idea and work on those stories that just aren't looking great right now.

What does it say about me that I need to use freaking REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY on a possibly non-existent spiritual thing to be able to write?


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Song of Myself

Who are you?
Well isn’t that a loaded question.
Find some courage,
Buy and frame a unique motivational poster.
Get a haircut,
Switch from glasses to lenses.
Refuse to be called by your real name.
Call me Ally.
Someone tells you not to be afraid to make mistakes.
Take this as an invitation to disregard all rules.
Join a book club or a yoga class or a new church.
Have an extramarital affair.
Paint the dining room red.
Paint the front door red.
Paint your lips red.
Buy an expensive, impractical car.
Tell that guy you liked in high school the truth,
Ten years too late.
Go backpacking through Europe, alone.
Solicit the help of a beautiful Parisian.
Find yourself to be strong.
Find yourself to be weak.
Find yourself to be just as confused as you always were.
Then sit down and get back to living.


Friday, March 9, 2012

forever, forever, forever

There was this time at a concert when the people to my right parted and in the open space I saw a girl standing alone, crying while the band played my favorite song. I understood those tears because I also had a deep, inexplicable connection with the song, the lyrics, the melody that was both terribly sad and uplifting at the same time.

I watched her.

She was a motionless piece of art amongst the swaying bodies, clapping hands, waving lighters. And when she parted her lips to mouth the lines that I had scribbled so many times in my journal, I felt weak, like I was on the edge of this huge precipice and had to jump to see if I could fly. But it was so, so far to the bottom and my fear felt like a tangible thing keeping me firmly in my place.

I imagined approaching her, grasping her hand wordlessly and we would be like rocks parting a river around us. Or grabbing her face with both my hands and giving her reason to believe in destiny with a kiss that echoed in our skins like heartbeats, two heartbeats.

But I was tethered to my place on the floor by fear--fear of rejection, of my friends watching me, of the faceless bodies in the crowd that seemed menacing, yet transfixing. As soon as I lost sight of her, I felt a giant chasm open up in my chest, because I just missed the chance to share in haunting, ethereal beauty with a complete stranger in what could have been the most defining moment in my life.

If I was the universe and decided these things, I would make sure that the boy in the checkered shirt who had the weight of fear on his shoulders never received such an opportunity again, because these moments didn't deserve to be squandered by indecision or simple cowardice.

I realized then that the girl might go the rest of her life feeling that no one understood the wordless language of her tears or the way her chest constricts in a pleasant but unforgiving way when the singer says forever, forever, forever and the loneliness might cripple her like fear has crippled me.

The guilt of this was an almost audible wave flowing over me, crushing me, and my blood felt heavy in my veins.

But to anyone watching, I was just kid at a concert who didn't know how to dance.

(The song: "All I Ever Wanted" by The Airborne Toxic Event)


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

White or wheat?

White or wheat? the girl behind the counter of the sandwich shop asks me, and I get the feeling that she has had a really terrible day, so I point to myself, the picture of ignorance, and say "I'm Irish." I watch her eyebrows draw down in confusion and then, after several painful seconds, a slow smile spreads out across her face like the tide getting ever closer to lounging sunbathers, unaware and blissfully hot, and I think I finally understand why people write poems, because that smile those eyes that girl in the green apron will be with me forever. So I order my ham and cheese lunch and she throws a chocolate chip cookie in for free with a secret in her eyes that I only understand in the context of deli meat secret terrors florescent lighting the daily grind dirty tile floors minimum wage ponytails in hairnets traffic sanitary regulations white or wheat? and I leave the shop with more than a little of that girl on my back, a loathsome, beautiful passenger.


Thursday, February 16, 2012


You are all pointy elbows and knees smirky face shiny eyes as you sing the jingle from that car commercial that we just saw while inexplicably doing the chicken dance, and the warble in your voice makes me laugh and your un-self-consciousness is as enviable as movie-star good-looks and I suddenly realize that you are a real-life example of what people have been trying to describe through eons of art literature poetry music love sonnets valentines: beauty.


In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can't see

There are words from a hymn running through my mind today and I imagine every person I see with an invisible burden: a fungus growing on the brain of my older sister, a cavity in my father's heart, a personal rain cloud over my science teacher's head, and as I turn to you with my own fears written in blood on the backs of my hands, I ask you where you keep it and you point to the recycling bin, thinking I was talking about something else


Monday, February 6, 2012

On Zadie Smith and the Disappeared Remainder

During my recent pillage visit to the Orem Public Library, I picked up a work of non-fiction along with my stack of 15 young adult novels: Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith. I had read Zadie Smith's On Beauty and some of her interviews online, so I knew this book would be good for me.

But, because this book is good for me (good to exercise my mind, good to get me out of the habit of reading through books in an almost semi-conscious state) I don't exactly like reading it. This book is so dense, like a giant bowl of lentil soup. I know that eating this soup is good for me, but I also know that it's almost impossible to enjoy the process of eating it when it takes so much effort to get down.

This unpleasant reading experience doesn't have anything to do with the book itself, other than the fact that it is more complex and intelligent than I am and therefore, putting me and this book together forces an ultimate battle of wills, in which I sit and stare at the same paragraph for an hour and the paragraph catches me staring and says, "Really? You still don't get it?"

But I did finally get it, pretentious paragraph, and it only took a few hours on a Saturday when I was too lazy to get up and leave the house to see a movie about superheros.

The essay "Two Directions for the Novel" is a dissection of today's current novel form (lyrical realism) and the novel's future form (constructive deconstruction) in the form of Netherland by Joseph O'Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy, respectively.

Netherland, the essay claims, is perhaps the most perfect example of lyrical realism available today: "It is so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait," (73).

The novel, Smith states, is so anxious about its own status in the world of literature that it can't help but show an anxiety of excess and of lyrical overload, where "everything must be made literary. Nothing escapes.... even the mini traumas of a middle-class life are given the high lyrical treatment, in what feels, at its best, like a grim satire on the profound fatuity of twenty-first century bourgeois existence," (80).

To this trend of lyrical realism, Smith poses an important series of questions:

[Netherland] wants to offer us the authentic story of a self. But is this really what having a self feels like? Do selves always seek their good in the end? Are they never perverse? Do they always want meaning? Do they not sometimes want its opposite? And is this how memory works? Do our childhoods often return to us in the form of coherent, lyrical reveries? Is this how time feels? Do the things of the world really come to us like this, embroidered in the verbal fancy of times past? Is this really realism? (82).
If lyrical realism does not actually portray reality, than what is its purpose? Smith claims that "out of a familiar love, like a lapsed High Anglican, Netherland hangs on to the rituals and garments of transcendence, though it well knows they are empty," (82-83).

Then where is literature to turn if meaning cannot be created by a lyrical portrayal of life and, more importantly, the objects that make our lives what they are?

This is where McCarthy's Remainder comes in and where I began to be thoroughly confused. McCarthy belongs to a group of theorists called the Necronauts who are "interested in tracing the history of the disappeared remainder through art and literature," (90).

But what is this disappeared remainder?

It is the gap between a thing and its meaning.

In lyrical realism, a thing is given meaning by assigning it personal significance: "In Netherland, only one's own subjectivity is really authentic, and only the personal offers this possibility of transcendence... Which is why things are so relentlessly aestheticised: this is how their importance is signified, and their depth. The world is covered in language," (79).

But, when this lyricism does not actually do its job (ie. portray reality and provide meaning in that portrait), what are we left with?: "the ghost of the literary burns... away, leaving only its remainder: a nicely constructed sentence, rich in sound and syntax, signifying (almost) nothing," (82).

The disappeared remainder in a deconstructive text like Remainder does not romanticize an object or a place or make it personal, as this does not convey authenticity. Rather, it shows how the thing actually exists in its own reality, in its own space, and it lets it be. It does not assign meaning, but discusses the meaning found by its relation to other objects. The meaning assigned by lyrical realists cannot be authentic, because a thing is, after all, just a thing and should be observed and written as it is shown in space:

One does not seek the secret, authentic heart of things. One believes--as Naipaul put it--that the world is what it is and, moreover, that all our relations with it are necessarily inauthentic. As a consequence, such an attitude is often mistaken for linguistic or philosophical nihilism, but its true strength comes from a rigorous attention to the damaged and the partial, the absent and the unspeakable, (92).

Rather than assign meaning with lyrical language/personal significance, the deconstructive text discusses the thing in its own context. A description of a thing or place can be made a narration by showing how the thing has affected its surroundings. Because "everything must leave a mark.... everything has a material reality," (95) the narrator of Remainder is able to observe a street where a black man has just died, noting its "muddy, pock-marked ridges" and "tarmac, stone, dirt, water, mud" and think "There's too much here, too much process, just too much," (qtd. in Smith 92).

Therefore, this deconstruction is "yet a narration defined by absence, by partial knowledge, for we only know it by the marks it has left" and, most importantly, the disappeared remainder that lyrical realism ignores, but is thoroughly anxious about, is "the void that is not ours, the messy remainder we can't understand or control--the ultimate marker of which is Death itself," (92).

The new direction of literature, supposedly, is language that acknowledges the barrier between language and meaning, the disappeared remainder that exists when we acknowledge this barrier, and the arbitrariness of assigning literary qualities to a thing that cannot be known completely in terms of personal significance or blatant aestheticisation.

The new novel reads this: "'the rinsed taxes, hissing over fresh slush, shone like grapefruits,'" (qtd. in Smith 80) and asks "grapefruits?" Why not "let the orange orange and the flower flower," (91).

The new novel desires to "take the side of things and try to evoke their nocturnal, mineral quality. This is... the essence of poetry... of trying, and failing, to speak about the thing itself and not just ideas about the thing," (91).