Sunday, November 30, 2014

How I spent November

I did again! For the second year in a row, I have jumped onto the NaNoWriMo train, and I have typed in my 1,700-ish words per day to reach a goal of 50,000. It's a fun and organized way to keep a deadline, and entering a daily word count into the NaNoWriMo website is a tidy motivator.

Last year I used the month-long process to draft memoir material. That is what I'm used to writing. This year I took a small leap foot-first off the high dive and pushed myself into fiction. I cheated, of course, by giving myself a first-person "actual self" narrator in addition to a third person narrator telling the fictional story. I call it a blend of fiction and memoir. Today, I call it "done" because I have reached a certain goal in word count and I have assembled what feels like most of the parts. I'll be working with my writing groups to get input and move the piece forward. I'm posting an excerpt below. It's first-drafty and skeletal. Response and input from readers are most appreciated!

Screenshot of today's NaNoWriMo status of my novel-writing. I won!

Here's an excerpt. The protagonist, Janice, takes a course in the history of 20th century western art course as a sophomore at the University of Oregon. She selects a painting by Karl Hofer that hangs in the Portland Art Museum as the subject of a two-paper assignment. In this excerpt, her attraction to her professor blends with her study of the painting, which shows a couple lying in bed. It's interesting what happens in your writing when you let it be fiction.

Chapter 4 (or thereabouts)
 Janice made three trips to Portland in all to study and write about Hofer’s painting. The museum’s curatorial team helped her locate valuable literature to incorporate in her analysis. An interview with the registrar offered the most substantive information about the painting’s provenance, although some of the history remained a mystery. 
The first paper was due just before the fall break, so Professor Gault had time to read the papers rather than the students having time to ruin their vacations writing them. Janice was sure his choice was designed to improve the student experience. Some professors believed in giving students a real break. Gault was a man who had eyes and ears open for his students. She found him available, responsive, and easy to be around. In fact, she craved contact with him and searched for excuses to stop by office hours again. 
Once, she studied the posted materials about study abroad opportunities outside his office. She waited there for 45 minutes, hoping just to catch sight of him. 
“Hello, Janice,” said a voice behind her. She pivoted and found Professor Gault standing in the hallway, close enough to smell his cologne. She pivoted so fast she nearly knocked into him. He stepped back quickly and reached out a hand to steady her. 
“Professor Gault! I didn’t hear anyone coming,” Janice said. 
“Are you thinking about a semester abroad?” he asked. 
Janice was sure she had mentioned the idea before, during one of her conversations with him about the Hofer painting, but she guessed he hadn’t remembered. Perhaps he was less attentive than she’d thought. “I’m applying for a semester in Germany, through the exchange with Baden-Wuerttemberg.” 
“I see,” he shifted an armful of books above his hip, patting his pocket for his keys. 
“I was going to ask you after the break, but since we’re talking about it, would you maybe do a recommendation for me?” 
Requests for letters of recommendation stacked themselves invisibly in front of Professor Gault’s eyes. He could barely see over the pile. “Sure. Yeah. Just bring all the pages and envelopes and postage required so I can get it done." 
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. OK, then, see you.” 
Later that afternoon, Janice sat herself down under a tree on the bump of a hill outside the Humanities parking structure. The grass was damp. Yellow and brown leaves played around in the wind over the grass. October was yielding to early signs of winter. She sat on top of her backpack to keep herself off the wet grass and nestled into her jacket, putting up her hood to stay warm. 
At 5:40, the door of the humanities building closest to the parking structure swung open and shut with a metallic bang. Gault strode toward the structure, glancing at a wristwatch. Janice sat in the near dark, no longer able to read. She hunched behind her knees and saw Gault enter the structure by a side door. Three minutes later, a brown Audi sedan pulled out of the garage. She looked inside to see if it was Gault. Then a red Subaru Forrester. That was Gault. She didn’t notice the license, just the schoolhouse red color. For weeks, she startled every time she saw a red Subaru. She would make herself as available as she could, especially if she sighted the car randomly in town. Maybe he would think he had happened upon her. Maybe seeing her off campus would make him notice her in a different way. Maybe he would think it was his own idea, picking her out of a crowd. 
As Janice wrote the first paper, the description of her chosen artwork, she tried to avoid phrasing about the couple in the bed that would seem too suggestive. The hidden location of the man’s penis, at the exact middle of the canvas, went beyond anything she was willing to commit to paper. But she thought of it. She pictured it. Was it an intentional bit of indirection on the part of the painter, to highlight exactly that which is covered from view? The same was true for the back side of the woman and her shapely hip line. Janice couldn’t see her buttocks, but she could imagine their suppleness and rounding. The unseen spot between the man and the woman was filled with moonlight, and that’s what she talked about in her paper, hinting only at the implication of the distance between their bodies: was it suggestive of intimate contact or the opposite of that, suggestive of uncrossable distance? 
She wrote about the colors and how she felt them—relaxing, pulsing, dull, serene, harmonious. The painting did not frighten her, but she wondered if it should make her uneasy. Often she felt she could curl up next to both of them and be as calmly asleep as the woman. More often than she admitted, she projected herself into the painting, lying there next to an undressed Professor Gault. Is that what it would feel like? she wondered. Janice’s brushes with boys in high school had been so superficial. In college she looked around finding no one who captured her interest or who seemed interested in her. Professor Gault—and the painting—became receptors of her held-in fantasies of male companionship. She had eyes on every side of her head when she walked around campus, looking for Gault. She undressed him in her mind. She thought of him when she lay in bed. She touched herself in ways she had never tried before and brought herself to orgasm, quietly to keep Jen from hearing through the wall. She felt like her imagined picture of a cat in heat. If only he would notice and make an approach. 
She left her paper in a box in the office. The secretary said Professor Gault was not expected on campus that day. Janice had hoped she could hand it to him in person.

Monday, November 17, 2014

A peculiar library

I returned last week to a library I had used once or twice in the early-mid 1990s as a resident of Karlsruhe: the Badische Landesbibliothek. It's the state library of Baden, the western half of Baden-Württemberg (I posted in May about another trip to Karlsruhe). I am researching a German painter, Karl Hofer, who was born and raised in Karlsruhe. My internet search on his name yielded 38 titles in the library's holdings. (I'm working on a novel for NaNoWriMo this month: 25,146 words as of today, headed for 50,000 by November 30th. The painter is involved.)

I asked the young woman at the information desk about the logistics of locating books. She said books newer than 1990 would be physically present. Older books are in off-site storage and must be requested by 4:00pm on the previous day for a user to collect the following day. Still others are in rare-book archives only accessible with a library card.

A few titles on my list were published after 1990, and she invited me to go into the stacks to have a look, no library card required. Remembering that this library had a peculiar cataloguing system, I asked, "Aren't the books here shelved in an unusual way--by acquisition date or something?" She confirmed. Just follow the schematic on each floor to locate the shelf that corresponds with the book's call number in the online catalogue. (Hint: do not expect obvious logic in the layout.)

Shelf A: An out of focus photo gives an idea of the vertigo you can feel
Development of Achievement Motivation * The Modern Short Story
Teaching in Japan * Evil in Modern Thought * America's God 
The Blood and the Shroud * Holy Rollers
Behavioral and Mental Health Drugs * I.V. Drugs 
Nurse's Drug Handbook 2003

Oh, dear. I remember now. In the 1990s, mildly culture-shocked and moderately depressed, I explored this library. Perhaps I wanted a book on textile art. Or something on language. Accustomed to the convenience and inspiration of browsing by topic in systems like Dewey decimal, I was dismayed to find random strings of titles on every shelf I passed. A book on bicycle repair sat right next to my textile book, and suddenly I had a wave of guilt about not taking better care of my bike. A book on teaching English next to a book about the Reagan presidency. The books and their languages were as mixed as individuals on a bus. One by one, as acquired, and seemingly with no other thought than perhaps about the height of the books, they got their numbers and their slots on the shelves.

Exhibit B: (mostly) English books (titles run down the spine from the top)

It's like the Sorted Books project by Nina Katchadourian, only so much less appealing. If you've never seen her book spine texts, take a look.

Exhibit C: German books (the title marches up the spine)
This shelf shows books published in German. Even the travel guide "New York" is a German publication, as evidenced by the type running up the spine from the bottom to the top. Amusingly, right next to it is "Das heimatlose ich" (The I without a home).

Why do German titles tend to run in this direction? To me it makes no sense: the "Anglo" way keeps the title right side up when the book is flat on a table, cover side up. There is even an ISO norm that specifies the "Anglo" way (ISO 6357). Yet publishers here seem to prefer the other, for design reasons or maybe old habit. I attempt to understand this notion, looking at these shelves. Perhaps there's a preference for grounding the titles along the sharp line of the shelf instead of letting them hang like so many awkward icicles from above.

Exhibit D: For a German library, there are a lot of English titles

Moderne Medizin - Chance und Bedrohung * Kopfüber am Himmel * Living Silence
The Death Penalty * Oxygen - The Molecule that made the world
Sicily Before History * Culture & Pedagogy
From Gutenberg to the Global Information Structure * Becoming Mona Lisa
Transitions in American Education * Castles in Medieval Society * By the Sword

An incredibly strange way to experience books. Hang on to your sense of reality.