“Watching Boys Do Stuff”: Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters

I recently came across Joyce Johnson’s 1983 book Minor Characters on a Goodreads list of memoirs by women, and I was intrigued to find a female voice from the Beat Generation.

At first, it seemed too good to be true. I hadn’t heard of a female writer among the Beats, even when studying them in college courses. After all, most Beat criticism quotes the following observation from Allen Ginsberg: “The social organization which is most true of itself to the artist is the boy gang.” So who was Joyce Johnson? Would her book have literary merit, or would it be a just-okay read, piggybacking off of Kerouac’s celebrity?

Johnson’s cover features the original photo used in a 1993 Gap ad “Kerouac wore khakis.” As one can see, her figure was gently erased.

Speaking for herself, Johnson is almost unrecognizable as a Beat woman. Whereas in On the Road, et al., the women are all legs and beds – sirens of small towns, briefly featured, ultimately discarded – Johnson is a Barnard graduate and aspiring writer, living in New York City. She holds jobs at various literary agencies, gets a book deal, and rents her own apartment. Kerouac mopes through town, between stays at his mother’s house, and crashes on her living room floor.

One of the highlights of reading Johnson is precisely what she has promised in her title: a sketch of life as a minor character, a girl stuck on the sidelines of the boy gang camaraderie. Consider this image of Edie Parker in Johnson’s opening chapter:

“One night Lucien Carr found an empty barrel and rolled Jack Kerouac home in it — that’s a solemnly recorded fact. As it crashes along Broadway through the hot, empty streets with Lucien attempting to push it faster and faster, I see Edie Parker running after it a little off to the side. She’s telling herself she’s having a swell time as she looks out for cops over her shoulder.”

This scene calls to mind Claire Vaye Watkins’ 2015 essay “On Pandering,” in which Watkins introduces the concept of “watching boys do stuff”:

“As a young woman I had one and only one intense and ceaseless pastime, though that’s not the right word, though neither is hobby or passion. I have practiced this activity with religious devotion and for longer than I can remember. . . I’ve filled my days doing this, spent all my free time and a great amount of time that was not free doing it. That hobby, that interest, that passion was this: watching boys do stuff.”

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This photo was featured in Watkins’ original piece.

When I first read Watkins’ essay, part of my experience that had remained a nameless frustration suddenly presented itself clearly. Friday nights during junior high and high school spent watching football games, in makeup and tight shirts, even though I didn’t like football. Going over to boys’ houses, only to get stuck watching them play video games. Studying abroad with boys who were always saying “take a picture of me here,” “Liz, can you videotape me doing this?” Senior year of college, sitting silently with my cup of whisky (all they had), listening to them debate in ever-louder registers about a random philosophical question. Primarily interested in each other as opponents, the girls mostly watched.

Reflecting on the social conditioning that leads to hours, days, collective months of forced spectatorship can be embittering. And Johnson understands that – and understood it long before anyone had started using the hashtag #watchingboysdostuff.

Of course, the practice of spectating and the art of writing are naturally intertwined. Baudelaire’s flaneur roams the streets at the turn of the 20th century, yet lives inside his mind – David Foster Wallace writes “Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers . . . They are born watchers,“ at the turn of the 21st. Johnson recognizes herself as a natural observer, quiet and watchful. But she moved in a community of writers, and, upon reading her eloquent prose, it seems should have had equal footing within it.

Thus Johnson explains not only what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated society, but specifically how it feels to be an emerging female writer in a literary movement that prioritized the kind of writing that only (white, privileged) maleness afforded.

For example, on the first day of a creative writing class at Barnard, a male professor asked Johnson’s class of young women, “Who among you want to be writers?” Slowly, they all raised their hands. He responded, “I’m sorry to say this . . . first of all, if you were going to be writers, you wouldn’t be enrolled in this class. You couldn’t even be enrolled in school. You’d be hopping freight [trains, riding through America.”

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The young Johnson.

Johnson writes, “The young would-be writers in this room have understood instantly that of course there is no hope. One by one their hands have all come down.”

To read Minor Characters, then, is to be part of a victory – to bring to life a tale that was ignored and stifled for a long time. Moreover, to hear the unsexy account of how Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg moved through the world is unexpectedly heartening – it gives hope to the quieter type, the more socially-boxed-in person, that he/she can live fully, and write well, too.

 

[Photo credit:]

Photo 1: https://www.overdrive.com/media/209027/minor-characters

Photo 2: http://www.openculture.com/2013/02/kerouac_wore_khakis.html

Photo 3: https://tinhouse.com/on-pandering/

Photo 4: https://doitagaindreen.wordpress.com/2015/12/02/joyce-johnson-lets-dance-to-a-female-beat/

 

 

 

Articulating the Infinite: Patti Smith on Why She Writes

Patti is back, albeit in brief.

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Devotion (2017) is the second volume in Yale Press’s new “Why I Write,” series, which launched in 2015 to publish the keynote addresses from Yale’s annual literary festival.

Smith’s slim treatise is tripartite. It opens with “How the Mind Works,” an account of a recent journey to Paris on a leg of her book tour. Next comes “Devotion,” a short-story about an ice-skating prodigy in WWII-era Switzerland, which Smith composes during the trip while riding the train from Paris to London. She closes with “A Dream Is Not a Dream,” a reflection on the story she’d written and a wrap of the trip.

Notably, Devotion contains Smith’s first published work of short fiction. Her recent, bestselling memoirs Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2014) are rendered lyrically and contain excerpts of poetry – but they are first and foremost glimpses of Smith’s life as an artist. In Just Kids, Smith writes of young, broke, wishful years in New York City with her dear friend, renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train, she walks us through a day in the life of her present-day 70-year-old self, who wanders around New York City drinking giant cups of gas station coffee and finding inspiration in relics of artists past. But there’s little to suggest in these memoirs that Smith herself has any history of or interest in writing fiction. Thus Devotion presents something new and even unexpected: a parable about creativity and talent in which neither writing nor Smith herself are the focus.

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As an addition to the “writers on writing” sub-genre, Devotion is a unique offering because it explores the question of why we write, rather how to write. Instead of breaking down her daily routine, sharing tales of early failure, and offering neatly packaged advice (“write shitty first drafts,” “kill your darlings”), Smith explores the origins of creative passion – where it comes from, how it feels, why it captures us.

Through a young figure-skating savant named Eugenia, Smith describes what it feels like to first discover one’s creative calling:

On my fifth birthday [my uncle] took us to an ice pageant. I remember this most of all. 

After I saw the skaters I cried for three days and three nights. . . Perhaps I recognized my destiny but was too young to fully comprehend what that meant . . . When I first stepped onto the ice I faltered, not out of fear, but excitement, for something wonderful happened. Everything I needed was revealed to me in a split second, like suddenly knowing all the answers to a difficult test, or the exact route to an impossible destination . . . 

Smith’s vision may seem a bit grandiose here – perhaps even unrealistic. For me, it calls to mind the myth of another young prodigy by the name of Will Hunting…

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

As in any proper parable, these storytellers exaggerate certain details to highlight the point. And the point is not, as one might think, how convenient it would be if things like organic chemistry or pianos immediately made sense.

The key lies in a minor admission Will makes earlier in this exchange. He concedes that he has studied organic chemistry before. “For kicks,” he says. Skylar responds, “Are you mad?”

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That’s the point. See alternate title for Smith’s book: Devotion (Am I Mad?)

So, why does Eugenia skate? Why does Will study organic chemistry in his free time? Why does Patti write?

Smith shows us that the mystery is the reason. In the pursuit of our particular, randomly-given talents and/or passions – whether for ice skating, mathematics, or writing – we encounter Truth. For Eugenia, the ice is a point of divine contact:

I saw it all before me, in an instant that instantly disappeared, yet made it’s mark. I intuited that when I was ready I held the key.

Importantly, the sublime glimpse is no more than that – a glimpse. Finding one’s passion is not a gateway to total, unimpeded understanding. It does, however, contain the promise of understanding, which is enough to sustain a life. Whether one responds as Eugenia, heeding the call and building a daily practice (yet forestalled by the evil forces of the world) — or as Will Hunting, denying the call’s centrality (impeded by shame and unworthiness) — the Truth can’t be unseen.

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Indeed, Smith affirms this answer in the nonfiction, third part of her book, “A Dream is Not a Dream:”

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exits.

The dream gives meaning, purpose, and a shape to one’s life.  It imparts confidence in one’s unique beauty — in being wanted and loved by the universe. It’s attainment is nothing less than communion with the world (however brief) – which is the ultimate joy.

Smith’s final line: “Why do we write? . . . Because we cannot simply live,” affirms our fundamental condition as seekers. As someone who seeks through writing, the story resonated deeply. As someone who has never committed a creative act on ice, I can’t speak to whether this parable rings true beyond the writing few.

If you want to find out, I’ll mail you my copy.

 

Lit by Mary Karr

For the first few weeks after reading Lit by Mary Karr, I could not walk into a restroom without thinking of prayer. While struggling to accept the customary Higher Power imperative of her 12-step AA program, Karr reluctantly offers her first prayers on the cold tiles of more than one bathroom. One such prayer closet lies within the same Cambridge “loony bin” (Karr’s term) where poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton may too have knelt during their respective stays.

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Published in 2010, Lit is the third of Karr’s bestselling memoirs. While The Liar’s Club (1995) and Cherry (2002) delve into the author’s turbulent childhood and teenage years respectively, Lit traces the journey of the adult Mary Karr from low-income college student at a Midwestern LAC to acclaimed poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing. Lit‘s 386 pages primarily contain Karr’s first marriage and subsequent divorce, her struggle with alcoholism as a young mother – transitioning her journey to sobriety and religious conversion.

Prior to Lit, my personal exploration of Karr’s work was limited to The Liar’s Club and her most recent poetry collection, Sinners Welcome (2009). Yet again, I found Karr’s particular gift to be a profound, pleasantly irreverent voice and a figure skater’s finesse with a sentence. For example, standing in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and just having learned that her first poetry book would be published:

“I chew my caramel, satisfied as a brood sow in a mud wallow. Neither good nor ill can reach me.”

While skilled with imagery, Karr also knows how to drop metaphoric fluff to great effect:

“I keep getting drunk. There’s no more interesting way to say it.”

Despite Karr’s engaging wordsmithery, I sometimes found her adult emotional life difficult to access. For example, Karr repeatedly emphasizes that her son, Dev, is the reason she was able to become and remain sober. Dependent-free twenty-two-year-old that I am, I found myself wondering: What do you mean you looked at him and knew you had to stop?

I imagine a collective sigh from mothers around the world as they look wistfully past my genuinely confused face, and offer former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz’s poetic yet unhelpful description of Notre Dame:

“If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none is adequate.”

I raise this only because I’ve recently read the mother’s perspective better conveyed. Creative nonfiction writer Maggie Nelson excels in this area in The Argonauts (2015), in which she explores every detail of having a child in a way that challenges and enlightens. After a thorough description of giving birth to her son Iggy, Nelson writes:

“He is perfect, he is right. He has my mouth, incredible. He is my gentle friend. He is on me, screaming.”

There is much to discuss with Nelson – a blog for another time.

Yet I didn’t pick up Lit for Karr’s journey to sobriety, her account of motherhood, or even her story of becoming a professional writer – I picked it up because of one line on her Wikipedia page: “[Lit is] my journey from blackbelt sinner and lifelong agnostic to unlikely Catholic.”

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Seems to have the secrets.

Prior to reading Lit, I mentioned my interest in Karr’s “unlikely Catholicism” to a friend. His response: “This might be what does it: Liz the Catholic.” Despite 16 years of Catholic schooling and a genuine interest in spirituality, I had taken a well-advertised break from Catholicism while in college. As someone who had recently bowed-out (with a bit of sound and fury), I had to know: why would someone choose Catholicism after having no religion for 30+ years?

Flipping through my crinkled copy of Lit, which had been baptized with coffee, I notice that my annotating hand was particularly drawn to passages that confess spiritual reluctance. Karr calls this her”outlaw ethos.” Rather than delving into disagreements with doctrine or skewering corrupt popes, she openly discusses a deep aversion to the basic idea of God.

For example, “I’m trying to start hearing the word God without some reflexive flinch that coughs out the word idiot.”

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Any word on whether kindles are coffee-proof?

Karr’s hilarious forthrightness about her internal ego battle is the highlight of Lit. In successfully living beyond addiction and igniting spiritual healing, she is particularly accessible for those (like myself) who have become flippant about religion due to various news items, life events, etc. More than ‘we the flippant’ would like to admit, spiritual isolation can be a painfully empty feeling, and it requires a major push to turn around and proceed in the opposite direction. Perhaps surprisingly, it may help to read every possible facetious comment articulated by a well-respected poet.

Following a prayer journey begun in a bathroom, Karr delivers a glimpse of the other side: “The spiritual lens . . . is starting to rewrite the story of my life in the present, and I begin to feel like somebody snatched out of the fire, salvaged, saved.” Karr’s is a narrative worth encountering.

 

 

 

 

 

Six (of many) Great Things About Majoring in English

 In honor of the first week of classes at Notre Dame, a tribute to my beloved area of study:

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  1. Everyone* in class wants to be there. English majors have often defied the wishes of their parents, chosen happiness over financial gain, and accepted a murky professional future over a straightforward one in order to be in that classroom. The result? People who all (a) read the book, (b) have a lot to say about the book, and (c) come together to create a stimulating discussion.

                               *Except for that person who ended up in Jane Austen class through some scheduling freak-accident.  He will play Words With Friends on his iPad all semester long.

Stock photo of random classroom that essentially encapsulates the English class vibe
Stock photo of random classroom that more or less encapsulates the English class vibe

2. Student camaraderie. “You didn’t start the paper?” “Me either.” “Want to get coffee and edit each others’?” “Um, yes please.”

English majors are in it together. There is no curve, and thus no reason to be competitive or delight in classmates’ failure. We unite in our love of books and reading, but also in our procrastination problems and hate for our professor’s pseudo-British accent and hopelessly ambiguous writing prompts.

If I calculated how much money I spent at Starbs that could have been spent on new books... but I don't have to do math anymore so whatever
Perhaps if I were a math major I would be able to calculate ways to buy less coffee and then save that money for more books…
  1. Cheap books. The most expensive thing an English major will ever have to buy is a $50 used Norton Anthology. Most of the time one has to acquire about five, ten-dollar books and the prof will email you the rest in PDF docs (that is, if this particular literary great happens to be one of the few who understands computers. The majority will come to class bearing stacks of warm print-outs.)

    Lot of this action
    Lot of this action in my backpack
  1. Job applications are a breeze. Writing cover letters is second nature, and English majors come across extremely well on paper. Now, if only you can be equally charming during the interview….
  1. Homework = reading novels and poems. And writing about them. If you are passionate about reading and writing, this can hardly be classified as work. I would be reading and writing anyway, and though I’d prefer there were no due dates or grades (or that I were perusing Harry Potter for the tenth time instead of struggling through Beowulf in Old English), nothing feels better than acing a paper I worked hard on (ahem – slaved over, sacrificing sleep, coffee money, party time…).

    Ahh Beowulf. Where it all began. (Theoretically, I should be able to "read" this by the end of the semester.)
    Beowulf, i.e. where written English began. And now we’re adding words like “amazeballs” and “mansplain” to the OED.
  1. Subjective grading. In contrast to a Calculus test, for example, when an A indicates that you correctly recreated another person’s discovery, an A on an English paper signifies your individual brilliance (at least this is what I tell myself). It distinguishes thoughts that are spot-on, well-organized, and creative enough to impress someone with a PhD in English. And in cases of sub-par papers (and cool professors), there is typically some opportunity to rewrite it or argue for a better grade.
    Such praise leaves me feeling as awesome as if I had been asked out by Matt Duchene (well, almost)
    Nothing quite like a few lines of barely-legible professor praise

     

    In conclusion, a word from P.G. Wodehouse:

    “There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”