Writers Read: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

The great thing about graphic memoirs is that they tell a story with pictures and somehow capture a feeling or an expression that no words can explain. It’s tricky, though. Because the association that a graphic novel is a story of cartoons, the expectation is that the subject matter is fiction. With a graphic memoir, the shock of the serious content juxtaposed with cartoonish characters can be unsettling. Roz Chast’s colorful graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, is the illustration of her parents as they approach the final stage of their lives and the challenges an adult child in this culture is often faced with: what do I do with these frail, delicate, beloved humans who don’t always remember me, who can’t take care of themselves, who stubbornly refuse to change socks, and who I love more than anything?

[blockquote align=right]What do I do with these frail, delicate, beloved humans who don’t always remember me, who can’t take care of themselves, who stubbornly refuse to change socks, and who I love more than anything?

Chast manages to draw the physical images of her parents and their moods at the various stages of their decline. On page 54, she describes her mother’s aversion to doctors, and her refusal to go to the hospital despite her severe pain. By the end of the nine small panels, you are grateful that you are not the one having to reason with her mother. And yet, there is something funny and loving about it, and familiar enough–it could be anyone with their parents.

Chast mixes up the memoir with copies of handwritten poems from her mother:

“When an unexpected illness struckdown [sic] the invincible.”
A random meteor
Shattered my world from above
Disrupting the lives
Of those whom I love
My husband, my daughter
Are caught in the swirling storm’s wake
But I shall over come this
For all of our sake…. (67)

Roz Chast, author of Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Photo credit: Bill Franzen/Salon)

Roz Chast, author of Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Photo credit: Bill Franzen/Salon)

She includes actual photos of her parents’ apartment, rooms with desks piled high with files and folders and books and purses and clothes—evidence that the dreaded, “I might want this later,” or worse, the decision that creates all clutter, “What should I do with this?” have now caught up with them. Anyone who has ever had to help an older person begin to sift through their life has probably encountered similar collections, big and small, of things that make no sense. Why would you keep a band-aid box from 1962? How come the same bag of shoes that need resoling is still in the hallway and hasn’t moved since the last time I was here? And God forbid, what about the Hummel collection? Looking at the physical proof of her parents’ existence, alongside frank words of someone whose disbelief is both amused and sad, a wave of nostalgia settles over the pages.

Chast places the reader in the real time of her parent’s slow (or fast, depending on how you are feeling) decline. When they are moved to an independent living retirement home, she puts the description of the facility in text, in a “frame” set against the gray and pink wallpaper of the “activities room.” Below the text, there is an image of an old woman doing a jigsaw puzzle with a suspicious scowl on her face as she sizes up the facility’s newcomers. [blockquote align=right]It’s a strange sensation to be letting go and feeling sad when it isn’t even someone you know—but again, that’s the power of a graphic text.

The tone of the book remains steady as the images and text convey Chast’s emotions. We readers begin to accept the eventual death of her parents at the same time Chast does. It’s a strange sensation to be letting go and feeling sad, when it isn’t even someone you know—but again, that’s the power of a graphic text. The last pages of the memoir are still-life drawings of Chast’s mother as as she sleeps in the final hours before she passes. At this point in the memoir, the color and cartoon images switch over to pen and ink to capture Chast’s mother’s return to innocence, as she slowly slips away and the one watching the transition begins to mourn the finality of death.

Chast, Roz. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

As of June 26, 2016, Heather Hewson is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles’s MFA program in Creative Writing.  At AULA, she was able to combine her love of art and writing, and she is currently working on a graphic memoir. She has worked on Lunch Ticket for the past year and a half, and is currently Co-Editor of Visual Art. She is a voracious reader, and believes that reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures–and hopes that her enthusiasm is contagious. In addition to writing and drawing, she works as a reading instructor for children ages 5-13.  She is looking forward to her next adventure in the writing world.

A Recreational Use of Self

Leonor Fini, "Histoire d'O," 1962.

Leonor Fini, “Histoire d’O,” 1962.

When I arrive at the DMV at eight in the morning, the line is already out the door. A woman wanders person-to-person managing the queue with a clipboard of forms and checklists. She asks me what I am here for and when I say “Name change,” she congratulates me. “Thank you, I’m glad it’s over too,” I respond and her face drops. I have seen the face-drop before. The edges of my smile neither curl up or down as she apologizes for her gaffe, and I must look like I’m grimacing when I answer, “It’s fine.”

With my number, 110 C, in hand—the ticker counter clocked somewhere in the upper 90s—I find an empty orange bucket seat, like the kind you used to find in old Florida schoolhouses. There is bright new paneling and Formica countertops, but otherwise, the South Florida municipal building looks like an old bank or post office with its sad columns and terrazzo floors. In the hallway, the line grows long, wrapping in front of the elevators and out into the lobby, where a guard loads purses onto a second-hand baggage scanner, checking for guns. The DMV computers are running slowly so the lady with the forms walks around apologizing. Babies wail and are bounced impatiently on hips. Everyone wears flip-flops save for the people in work attire, dressed like lawyers or cellular phone salesmen. Phones and tablets illuminate a diverse array of faces.

After an hour-long wait, I am at the counter. The young woman behind the desk rolls through the requisite questions regarding the name change and accompanying paperwork: a court order that allows me by law to reclaim what’s mine, and a new social security card that proves, in the eyes of the government, that I am continuous with my former self. She stares at me as her computer reboots, as we wait for my driver’s license to reprint with my new name, my new-old name, my maiden name. Like the woman who checked me in and the woman who walked around with her clipboards, this lady has already apologized several times, both for the computers and the divorce. They are all sorry that I have to go through the trouble to reclaim something that’s already mine.

In December of 2014, I discovered that my husband was deeply unwell. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and extreme mania, which was not enough of a diagnosis to save my family from the orbit of lies that crashed towards us with terminal gravity. Just a few days after the doctor’s visit (first of many), I left for Los Angeles for my second MFA residency at Antioch University, where author and poet Nick Flynn would read new poetry and teach a seminar. In my bag, I carried his book of poetry Some Ether from one coast to the other. After his seminar, I made him sign it, a ritual I found both robotic and a little creepy. But I like seeing his signature on the front page. It provides me with a proof of memory to counter the numbness. To me, trauma feels like an opiate dream or a bad head cold. How perfect was Sylvia Plath’s bell jar, the feeling of watching the world from under thick glass.

Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn

In his poem, “Sudden,” Flynn writes of his mother’s suicide, “& the world became a bell we’d crawl inside/ & the ringing all we’d eat.”

“It’s fine,” I answer to the woman behind the desk at the DMV.

“But you seem happy?” Her question seems self-reflexive so I say nothing.

Should I be wearing the pain on the outside, in long black skirts, wailing like someone paid to be sad? Perhaps she thinks my messy hair is indicative of my interior state. But it always looks like this, I want to tell her. I almost tell her the sordid details of the divorce—the coming-apart that happened after December 2014, the legal problems, the emotional and psychological abuse, the emergency custody hearings, how I’ve feared for my safety and that of my children, how I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. Yes, I’m happy to be on the other side of hell. But no, I’m not particularly happy.

the ringing all we’d eat

Time-sharing is not so bad, I have heard from well-meaning people offering advice about divorce. But I am full-custody mother. Absent father. Missing father. Missing-persons-report filed in some police station in Las Vegas, not by me, but by some later incarnation of me, another girl he met somewhere down the road, someone else his rapid-fire mind has outlived. He’s gone. Eyes widen. Pity comes pouring after and I feel manipulative, like I’ve created an artificial situation to boost me up, guilty of emotional manipulation, much like my ex-husband. This is the power of a good story. I have spoken in euphemisms for the majority of the last year and a half to avoid these raw reactions. How I choose to tell my story also informs my identity—a desire to please others, to feel loved, to feel less shame, to feel less stupid for giving up my maiden name, for believing the lies of my marriage.

The woman at the counter is doe-eyed and so I spare her. By now, it’s nine in the morning and their computers have crashed. It’s going to be a long day at the DMV.

I reply generically, “Divorce takes time, so when it’s over, you’re mostly relieved.”

She looks confused, a slight frown on her face. She’s pretty in a Sunday morning way, with white teeth, caramel skin, an open smile, a church face unmarked by either time or internalized ruin. We move on to discuss our children. I have two boys. She has one. She is still married. I want to tell her that life often offers the unfortunate illusion of stability. Finally, the machines reboot and my new license is printed.

Her large, concerned eyes are still attached to my face when she leans in and lowers her voice, “But do you think you will be able to start over?”

I laugh with awkward assurance. Later I think maybe I have a crazy laugh, maybe my weird half-smiles are unsettling. But her well-intentioned comment makes no sense in the real world. Did I get rebooted too? Is life made of discrete components that mash together and give the illusion of continuity? Is identity like that too—a before-and-after, laminated pages from a plastic surgeon’s office? I wish I could start over. I’d ask for different hair and less anxiety.

Paul Klee, "Dancer," 1932.

Paul Klee, “Dancer,” 1932.

A recent Brain Pickings essay examines Amin Maalouf’s book, In the Name of Identity, and quotes the author, “A person’s identity… is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” The study of personal identity is complex—a subject tackled by scientists, philosophers, psychologists, and, of course, by authors. As writers, we are constantly confronted with the problem of identity—our own in memoir, our characters in fiction—mostly it seems like an ad-hoc assemblage more than the construction of a “tightly stretched parchment.” We use words to make meaning of things that are hard to define, like self, like grief, like trauma. I have a good story. I am just not sure who is telling it anymore. Which incarnation of me suffered? Which me survived?

In an essay in Aeon, philosopher and literary critic Galen Strawson contests the idea that we are built only of narrative. Rather, he says, there exist two types: the storytellers and the others who are “anti-Narrative by fundamental constitution. It’s not just that the deliverances of memory are, for us, hopelessly piecemeal and disordered, even when we’re trying to remember a temporally extended sequence of events. The point is more general… Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us.” Perhaps he is right. Or perhaps there is a middle ground. No grand narrative but a multiplicity of smaller stories.

[blockquote align=right] So I borrowed his skin and glued it to the underside of mine, like a graft that takes root and grows, like an invasive vine that blankets a house, protects it from rain and snow, then tears it down.

Lately, I have been thinking about our social skin, the thin layer that cleverly masks our interior life and presents us to our peers in dazzling array. We wear different social skins depending on where we sit in life, what plastic chair in what DMV in what shoes in what era. I started over when I married and borrowed someone else’s last name, acquiesced to have my children be named for that distant, unknown family. I fought against a gradual tide, but it finally overtook me: the urge to disappear into a man. For as long as I can remember, I have had the underlying impression that I need someone else’s energy just to get through the day. So I borrowed his skin and glued it to the underside of mine, like a graft that takes root and grows, like an invasive vine that blankets a house, protects it from rain and snow, then tears it down. Once it had grown into all the crevices and phalanges, under membranes and pores, I was just a thin surface, no longer with any walls underneath me, a balloon inflated by his breath.

If Maalouf calls our identity a pattern drawn over the membrane of a drum, what happens when you lose your sense of self? When my husband disappeared, I felt pierced. There was no drum to sound. As Popova writes, “… we are increasingly pressured to parcel ourselves out in various social contexts, lacerating the parchment of our identity in the process.” What happens then?

& the world became a bell we’d crawl inside
& the ringing all we’d eat

My name comes back on my license, the same name from childhood. I slowly unglue one skin and regrow something new, something old. I could argue that personal identity doesn’t exist after trauma, within grief, outside of healing—stories, if ever they emerge, shape themselves only months and years later, after the ringing stops. In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez writes, “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” Starting over each new second. Ad infinitum. A billion identities constantly in flux. How exhausting. I return to Nick Flynn.

Nancy Calef, CNN, oil on canvas, 36" x 48"

Spotlight: Peoplescapes

It’s Always Harder than it Looks

 

Mt_Rubidoux-V3.01-1024x551

Mt. Rubidoux. Photo credit: G.D. Palmer

 

Recently, my son Quentin called to report that he’d summited Mt. Rubidoux and would be home soon for dinner. I chuckled. Mt. Rubidoux is, more accurately, a hill that rises 500 feet above the Santa Ana River in Western Riverside. Under most circumstances, “summit” would be excessive, though that was not the case the first time that Quentin climbed its steep west side.

Fifteen years ago, we lived just across the river from the foot of Mt. Rubidoux. It filled the window in our dining room where the only piece of furniture was an antique bench I used as a stand for my CD player and candle. It was the perfect place to practice yoga, or watch hikers snake their way along widely spaced switchbacks to the mountain’s peak. The top of the five-foot plastic Little Tikes cube jungle gym in our back yard also provided a great view of the Mt. Rubidoux. Quentin would climb up there to watch people hike straight up the mountain, cutting the switchbacks. “Mama, can we do that?” he’d asked. “Yes,” I’d say, “one day.”

That one day was an early morning in August, not too long after Quentin’s fifth birthday. The two of us climbed the direct route up the mountain for the first time. The path was steep, and the dirt underfoot loose and dry. We turned to face each other and sidestepped up the mountain to maintain our footing, bypassing every opportunity to rejoin the main trail until we reached the pavement walkway to the summit. I lifted him up onto the walkway and followed in a single high step. I caught sight of his cheek-splitting smile before he turned and ran-hopped ahead of me to the top.

It can be difficult to understand why we climb mountains. Consummate mountaineers still rely on George Mallory’s response to the New York Times in 1924: “Because it’s there.” Contemporary research by economists and psychologists suggests that climbers and mountaineers are motivated both by reason and emotion. Calculations based on ability, financial resources, available time, and proximity to crags and mountain peaks contribute to their decision-making, but so do their desires to achieve goals and glory, master skills, and find greater meaning in life.  Renowned behavioral economist and former mountaineer George Lowenstein argues that the extraordinary value frequently attached to these non-consumption goods can lead outdoor enthusiasts to take life-threatening risks.

Mount Assiniboine, Provincial Park, British Columbia

Mount Assiniboine, British Columbia

Lowenstein speaks from experience. He nearly killed his wife, Donna, on Mt. Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies. Lowenstein and Donna reached the summit in a white-out, but wandered off-route on the way down and had to descend a nearly vertical face in a fierce storm that dumped so much snow it was like an “avalanche.”

“I was short-roping my wife and kicking steps and we were rappelling off things we shouldn’t have trusted, like blocks of ice sticking out of the slope. Donna kept saying, ‘I don’t want to rappel off that thing, I don’t think it’s going to hold.’ And I’d say, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to hold. Clip in and go or we’re going to be in trouble.’ I didn’t want to say ‘die,’ though I was convinced we were going to.”

Though Lowenstein admits such experiences can shape character like nothing else, the associated risks can be unconscionable. Maria Strydom’s death on Mt. Everest last month, the fifth so far this year, is a case in point. Exhausted and suffering from altitude sickness, Strydom stopped less than fifteen minutes from the peak and urged her husband to continue without her. She died in his arms before the couple could descend.

No wonder Lowenstein stopped climbing when he and Donna became parents.

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Doris Lessing, 1919-2013

Of course, the physical and psychic challenges of writing are rarely as epic as those widely faced climbing in the Himalayas, Alps, or Andes. Yet writing is hard. Mountaineer Joe Simpson’s admittedly understated characterization of his travails in the Alps as “harshly uncomfortable, miserable, and exhausting” could describe the writing experience. The Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing told the New York Times in 1984 that “writing is hard work…you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.” Ann Patchett refers to writing as a “miserable, awful business.” And George Orwell regarded writing as a “horrible, exhausting struggle.”

Why we write can be as incomprehensible as mountain climbing. Writers endure sometimes steep and extended learning curves, expend time and resources they cannot easily afford, and isolate themselves from friends and family to hunch over their desks, alone but for the writing implements and sustenance essential to their work. Why?  For many of the same reasons some climb mountains:  To create, or achieve some other writerly goal. To make a mark, lend one’s name and words to the history of literature and art. To indulge in a practice at which they excel or can anticipate gaining mastery.  To discover or bring meaning to life, though it may not be their own. To achieve a goal, design and enact a plan to fulfill a personal or collective intention.

Mountains are intimidating. Climbing mountains represents a formidable goal for many, which requires intense desire, careful preparation, and unflagging commitment. This much is also true for writing. Like climbers and mountaineers, writers are often compelled to abandon secure livelihoods in pursuit of physical and creative freedom. The “starving artist” and “dirtbag climber” both embody the ideal sacrifice of material success to focus on art or the development of athletic prowess.

Indeed, the time and practice required for mastery, and the attendant threat of failure supports a wide range of comparisons between writing and endurance or extreme sports. Writers face rejection the way climbers practice falling. And even the most seasoned mountaineers routinely turn back due to foul weather and other dangers. Jon Krakauer, whose account of the 1996 Mount Everest storm is the subject of Into Thin Air, once said that detailed outlines sustain his effort to complete a book project the way that climbing “pitches” the length of a rope render long or difficult climbs manageable.

Location, and time and financial resources to sustain presence in situ, are also essential to successful mountain climbing and writing. Virginia Woolf famously argued that a woman, “must have money and a room of her own” to write, much as renowned free soloist Alex Honnold underscores the need to stay in Yosemite, whatever the financial consequences, to master its towering granite walls. In both cases, an extended presence in a physical or geographical space engenders the freedom necessary to craft creative solutions to problems.

sunset-john-muir-trail

Sunset, JMT. Photo credit: Eric Leifer

Writer and naturalist John Muir embodied both worlds. Although he lived and work in Yosemite for just six years, Muir spent most of the forty years that followed advocating for environmental preservation and national parks. His life’s work included the composition of a dozen books and hundreds of articles as well as thousands of miles trekking in the Sierras and elsewhere in the Americas.

Muir is memorialized in an epic 215-mile trail that bears his name. The John Muir Trail (JMT) originates in Yosemite National Park, continuing southeast through the Ansel Adams Wilderness and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, to Mt. Whitney Peak. I first hiked the JMT during a family vacation in the 1970s. Along with dozens of other visitors to the Yosemite Valley that summer, we followed the JMT to the Mist Trail, which includes 600 granite stairs, slippery from the spray from Vernal Fall, to reconnect with the JMT back to the Valley floor.

climbing

Child climbing Mt. Rubidoux. Photo credit: Brohammas

I remember my then five-year-old brother Craig looking back over his shoulder with a wide grin as he raced ahead of us up the stairs with an unsteady, hand-foot matching gait. I recalled that image thirty years later as I followed my youngest child, Olivia, up the same steep trail to the Mt. Rubidoux summit that Quentin and I once hiked. Fearless, she sunk her fingers into the dirt, then scrambled her feet forward like an inch worm to meet her hands, generating a wake of choking dust as she progressed upward.

Olivia’s concentration and physical exertion as she climbed, and her triumphant smile when she reached the top illustrate the truth that a summit’s measure is not limited to elevation. It’s about “obsession,” according Jimmy Chin, who, along with fellow climber and filmmaker, Renan Ozturk, and famed mountaineer Conrad Anker, is credited with the First Ascent of Mt. Meru in 2011, via the difficult and dangerous Shark’s Fin Route. The 2015 film Meru documents this ascent, including the trio’s failed initial attempt at the summit in 2008. About their decision to return, Chin explained, “I was honestly inspired by the mountain. Inspired by what it pushed me to do. I saw what we could do better.”

Similarly, the value of a writer’s work exceeds the simple calculus of pages and publication venue. The writer is inspired by the image of what she’d like to compose and challenged to master the elements of craft necessary to bridge the gap between blank page and finished manuscript. Philosopher Michael Carter argues that this creative impulse is the “beginning” of writing, “one of the most powerful and accessible ways we have of heightening our consciousness of being creative and thus becoming full participants in creation.”

Carter’s insight rings true for me. Why exactly I am writing is sometimes unclear when I begin a piece, much as the real reasons for tackling a challenging climb can be once I’m actually standing at the base of an imposing cliff. Their meanings lie waiting in the act of writing, the climbing itself.

 

Works Cited

Carter, Michael. Where Writing Begins: A Postmodern Reconstruction. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Honnold, Alex. Alone on the Wall. New York: W. W. Norton, 2015.

Lowenstein, George. “Because It Is There: The Challenge of Mountaineering…for Utility Theory.” Kyklos 52, 3 (1999): 315-344.

Patchett, Ann. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014.

Simpson, Joe. This Game of Ghosts. Seattle: Mountaineers, 1993.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Eastford, CT: Martino’s Fine Books, 2012.