Musings on language, images and life

Month: June, 2010


Summer is here, the time of year when I do my best writing (probably because I have time). For better or for worse, I’m a goal-oriented person. Sometimes these goals are rather nebulous– I have a general idea of where I want to go but the concrete destination isn’t exactly clear. I’m typically OK with that. It’s important for me to articulate these directions (as hazy as they may be), both to begin to chart my course and for future reference (when I look back and try to understand myself as a writer and ultimately as a person). So, here are the JWB goals for summer 2010.

1. I am at a point in my creative nonfiction writing career where I need to hone my style. I still do quite a bit of academic publishing, and I find this tone and lexicon creeps into my memoir and personal essay work more than I would like it to. One of my goals is to find my voice and aesthetic range as a creative nonfiction (non-academic) writer.

2. I am also a professional travel writer. Most of the travel writing I do is for tourism or cultural blogs and magazines. I frequently want to include “foreign” or “cultural” elements in my memoirs and personal essays, but I fear these inclusions seem forced or trite. Another one of my goals is to refine the way I address travel and culture in my memoirs and essays.

3. My last goal is a bit more elusive, but no less important.  I hope to nuance my rhythm as a writer. Throughout my years of studying literature and writing, I have always been drawn to the work of authors who (seemingly effortlessly) infuse their prose with a rhythm that drives it forward while simultaneously causing the reader to want to linger on certain passages, to absorb all the beauty, shock or grotesqueness contained in them. It is this dynamism that I seek to master in my own writing.



RE/VISIONIST is a well-curated blog of multiple feminist perspectives, edited by graduate students in the Women’s History Program of Sarah Lawrence College. Last week, they published a piece I wrote on the installation artist Latifa Echakhch. You can find this and many other compelling pieces at

Narrative Space

I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative space this week. To me, this term takes on several meanings. Narrative space can be the actually space in which the story is set (i.e. the back seat of a car, Portugal, a classroom, etc.). In this sense, narrative space is intertwined with narrative time (chronology, flashbacks, etc.) It could also mean the mental or psychological space of the narrator — the frame of mind that allows one to express oneself. This is not just limited to POV (point of view), it has to do with both the author and the narrator’s mental structure (and elements therein that are perhaps out of one’s control– or part of one’s “genius”– as an author). One’s mental space informs the way words are put together or loaded with certain meanings. It also has to do with intentionality — where the narrative is going and why it is going there.

As a visual person, I’m also interested in narrative space in a more concrete sense— literally how the words look on the page. In general, I am a fan of creative formatting that is meaningful and adds another visual layer to the narrative. Poets and short story writers tend to be quite masterful at this (Appolinaire’s Calligrammes comes to mind immediately). Certain novelists as well (Danielewski’s House of Leaves, for example). I’m not there yet– in spatial terms, I’m miles away. As I play with spacing and narrative flow, I often feel like I’m over-thinking it. Sometimes my best ideas come out of sloppy drafts, where the spacing just happened “naturally.” I’m going to make this my “assignment” for the summer– to be aware of space– both the aspects I can control and those I can’t (or shouldn’t).

The Medium is the Passive Aggressive Message

Last weekend, we were having dinner with a couple who moved here from New York a few years ago. The wife asked my husband (who is from Los Angeles) what he found most surprising or challenging about moving to Minnesota. “Not as much surf,” he laughed. “What about the Midwestern passive aggression?” she queried. “Don’t you miss people just telling you like it is?” “Ya sure, you betcha,” he agreed in his best Midwestern accent.

Growing up in Minnesota, I never quite “got” the passive aggressive thing. I knew that it was a Midwestern stereotype, but I had only met a few people who actually “passively aggressed” on a regular basis. I associated Midwestern passive aggression with unfulfilled middle- aged men in ill-fitting suits, secretly plotting each other’s professional demise, mother-in-laws in tight high-waisted khakis whispering criticisms in their sons’ ears behind their daughter-in-laws’ backs or needy “church ladies” (come on, you know the type) vying for negative attention. I never really found myself surrounded by any of these people in my teens and early twenties, so yes, I was blissfully out of  “P.A. range” for many years.

Upon my return from LA (where people typically just tell you like it is, or ignore you— academics excluded, but that’s a special kind of passive aggression), I finally figured out what everyone had been talking about. As I entered my “adult life” in Minnesota, I encountered a particular genre of passive aggression, one mediated by technology. I’ve learned that the medium through which one chooses to “passively aggress” often reveals more than the words he or she uses. And man, there are some great options out there, depending on your flavor of passive aggression. Here are two of my faves:


When I first moved back to Minnesota I was teaching French in a Catholic school. I liked the whole “we are family” metaphor and all, but what some co-workers failed to understand is that while I might forgive a relative for sending me a bizarro guilt -laden (or rage-filled) email, my co-workers aren’t actually my family. That’s OK, the lack of professional boundaries fused with good old-fashioned Midwestern passive aggression and made for some priceless emails.

Email is a prime medium for passive aggressive behavior because you can get everything off your chest without actually having to (gasp) confront someone (like they do way out there on the coasts,” don’ t ‘cha know”). One particular co-worker experienced moments of intense rage when he would discover the TV he had reserved for his class was not there. Instead of going into the reservation system to see who (perhaps by mistake) could have taken his particular TV instead of one of the other six in the building that he could be using, he would send out a “staff all” email (heavy on the guilt) about personal responsibility. During the three years I worked there, these (frequent) emails morphed from the “Catholic-guiltesque” variety to full on “rage against the system and everyone in it” epics. Woah Nelly. But would this guy ever talk about a “TV transgression” to your face? No way.

Let’s not forget that the cc and bcc are great strategic tools for passive aggressive emailing. But here’s what passive aggressive emailers tend to forget— while it feels soooo good to hit send, your little P.A. moments are also permanently recorded for posterity and could very easily be forwarded on or used as entertainment at parties (not that, ehem, I’d have any experience with that).


While most of the uncomfortable Facebook interactions I’ve had with Midwesterners have actually been rather aggressive (there’s a former –now blocked– “ friend” of mine — I’ve dubbed him the “Tea Partier”— who really liked to let me have it in the form of vitriolic misspelled diatribes), I have had several “fun” passive aggressive moments as well. My favorite happened recently.

A friend of mine had posted a link on which I commented— nothing controversial, basically just saying I liked the link. Another friend of hers (let’s call her “Nancy”) posted something pretty inflammatory– well more just out of touch– (though not political in nature). I thought about it for a while and posted a quick little “interesting read on the situation, this is how I see it,” response, not looking for a fight, just being (double gasp!) straightforward. After all, it’s Facebook and, as the media reminds us daily, there is no such thing as privacy (especially when you’re posting for all to see…go figure). So, “Nancy,” assuming her best passive aggressive stance, writes something to my friend (on the same thread) about how she should have known better than to post anything “remotely political” because “certain people” get “all out of whack” and how the last thing she wants to do is have a debate with someone “she doesn’t even know.” Followed by a separate post lamenting how she “loves and hates Facebook at the same time. Sigh.” Not only had she skillfully employed a very public forum to shame me for responding to her in the first place, she did so without actually addressing me directly.

Oof dah! I didn’t know whether I should applaud or set her up with email man so they could ride off into the sunset together and “passively aggress” each other until the end of days. The best part? With the help of technology, they would never even have to meet face to face.

Forays into Fiction

I never dreamed I’d become a fiction writer. Nope. Not in a million years. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write short stories or novels, it was just that the thought had never crossed my mind (really).

As my writerly identity has become more fluid these past few years, I’ve found myself dabbling in creative nonfiction — essays or short stories based on an actual event, recounted using literary techniques. I’ve published a few, but have been saving most of them for my pet project, a book of short stories.

I pull out this manuscript a few times per month to edit, refresh, refine and add more “literary stuff” to the growing number of pages. Last week, I noticed that some of these “creative nonfiction” pieces had morphed (seemingly on their own) into fiction. I had expanded the scope of the characters, “nuanced” (read: completely changed) some of the major events, and rearranged the chronologies.

Grains of nonfiction still exist, to be sure. But now, instead of germinating into factual accounts, they pepper largely fictional narratives. The authorial voice that was once “mine” (as in the autobiographical Jen) is now an amalgamation of characters I have read or met. Likewise, the story about “my dad” has shifted into a story about “a dad” who happens to share traits or personal histories with 2-3 other dads I know.

I was having coffee with a friend last week (who also happens to be an author I respect very much) and revealed to her that I had been writing fiction. Pleasantly surprised, she asked to see it. Cue my litany of “well, I just dabble,” “it’s really not that good, I wouldn’t want to waste your time,” etc., etc. She looked at me and said “Wait, stop the self-effacement. What are the specific issues with it, what’s the thing you struggle with the most?”

“I never trained to write like this,” I responded (not really answering her question). There it was. I felt like an imposter– I hadn’t set out to write fiction, it happened organically (no, it happened by accident).

“Who cares?” she insisted. “If you are enjoying it, keep doing it. I can’t wait to read it.”

I am enjoying it. I’m definitely going to keep doing it. The stories keep coming, my fingers can’t keep up with the images, voices and truths (not “the Truth”– multiple truths are so much more interesting) in my head. Yes, today is a good day to write fiction.