Friday, March 17, 2006

American Elf

I've started reading the fat volume of James Kochalka's sketchbook diaries, Oct 98 - Dec 03. I remember reading somewhere a collection of the diaries he drew around the time of the 9/11 attacks.

"Each day I pick," Kochalka says in a drawn introduction, "one of [the little things that happened that day] and draw a comic strip about it. ... The days go by, the pages fill up, and the row of black sketchbooks grows on my shelf."

He draws himself as a big-eared, buck-toothed elf because, he says, "it reflects my relationship with the world. The magic & mystery of life and my awkward grappling with it." The strips are typically 3 to 4 panels, presented in a square. Kochalka doesn't try to tell a joke, does not necessarily go for a unity of effect. In the strip for Nov 18, 1998, for instance, the first panel depicts elf walking through melting snow, the caption, "All around me, sounds of melting snow" and word balloons within the panel cry out, "Gurgle" and "pitter patter" ... the day's other two panels show elf tapping away at a laptop computer. He glances askance at the reader, "Email is boring."

I find the dailiness of these charming.

Today at my new branch library gig Karen (my new boss) said to me she was working on a Christmas story but was dissatisfied with it because there wasn't any conflict in it. Her story was about a real Christmas, one that sticks with her because it came not long after her parents died and she spent the time with, I think, her sister & husband. She was trying to apply to her personal tale advice she's read in books on how to write.

There are different kinds of writing. Even if Karen succeeded in producing something commercially salable, it does not mean therefore she had produced something that would please her audience, for her audience is family and friends. And some of those people would be pleased by her writing because it included them and what happened happened to them and to people they love. Should the group of them walk into a bookstore together would they all agree on what book to buy? Surely not. One would go for racy romance, one for hard SF, one for experimental poetry, and one would quickly get bored and bow out for a cup of coffee.

Unless you're a staff writer or a freelancer whose bills will go unpaid without the sales of the ancillary rights, when you write you write for yourself first. You are your audience. And usually your worst critic.

I've been reading Anne Stevenson's biography of Sylvia Plath and Stevenson quotes from Plath's diaries many times. Plath was ambitious, determined, and methodical about marketing her work. She gnashed her teeth over rejection, probably dropped to darker depths over them than most of us can handle, yet she kept putting her work out there because that was damned important to her. She did not, however, write the diaries for publication. Much of what she did write for publication included scenes and details from her daily life and the lives of her loved ones and the result could be brutal, lacerating, and cruel. Full of conflict, mostly figurative but sometimes literal.

You can read today's American Elf here.


Anonymous said...

Have you seen "Self-Made Man"?

I'm about 60% done. Interesting. Horrifying sometimes because it feels true. Horrifying sometimes because it feels false. But interesting.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

The library got it. I remember a woman who disguised herself as a man and wrote a book ... this was 20 years ago? "My Life as a Man" ... I think that was the title. The author appeared on Donahue both as a petit pretty woman and in costume (3 piece suit, beard). I recall two stories: one, her consciousness of the threat women felt from her because she was presenting male (a woman quickening her pace, glancing behind her in a dark parking lot); two, gay men hit on her.