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Filtering by Tag: my manic mind

Five Thoughts Without A Common Thread

Jacquelyn Bengfort

1. I used to feel bad about having a cleaning lady come to my house every two weeks, but then I realized she makes more on average per hour than I do, and now I feel a little better. Also, it's incredibly nice to have a clean house for two days a month. Badum-ching. 2. Someone in my neighborhood has been sticking dead purple bears to various street signs and lights. I like it more than I probably should.

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3. I was briefly known around my neighborhood as "the one who counts yard signs for Twitter." There's a contentious development to the north of Bloomingdale on a disused sand filtration site, and I was attempting to get a sense of the level of support by what people say with their front lawns. The war of the yard signs continues unabated. The latest chess move is putting "I SUPPORT CORRUPTION" stickers on the "CREATE MCMILLAN PARK" (pro-development) signs. Reportedly one neighbor got pictures of the perpetrator and turned the evidence into the cops. But what I really want to know is whether the person placing the stickers is in favor of or opposed to the proposed development. Because if the person is in fact in favor of the development and is using the stickers to get neighbors enraged at the opposition, then, bravo, sir. Check. Mate.

4. Please don't let this be the only comment on my website this month.

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5. Finally, if you're still with me, I had two new pieces of writing go up online last week, one on the EdTech website and one at Tirage Monthly. If you read them both you should get a pretty good idea of my range as a writer. (Ahem, hire me.)

Never Go Down the Writing-Jobs-on-Craigslist Alley Alone

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I use Craigslist. I buy things, occasionally; I sell things. I peruse "Missed Connections" from time to time because, well, I'm an anthropologist and interested in everything human, and find longing especially fascinating. And, like the proverbial moth, I'm drawn time and again to the flame that is "writing/editing jobs."

Screen Shot 2014-04-16 at 11.28.23 AMWhat a sucker.

There's no place more treacherous, I think, than the "writing/editing jobs" portion of Craiglist. (Caveat: "writing gigs" may in fact be worse.) Let me break it down for you. "writing/editing jobs" [sic] include the following sorts of posts:

  • requests for unpaid interns
  • people with "bestseller" ideas who want to split the "massive profits" after you've completed that pesky writing bit on spec
  • poorly-punctuated, all-caps invectives screaming "LETS MAKE MONEY TOGETHER" from unnamed "successful companies" or "high-powered consulting firms"
  • sundry likely scams I'm too lazy to confirm as verifiable scams (but I'm looking at you, "don't use the Craigslist email relay system" posters)
  • the occasional, apparently-legitimate seeker of a professional writer or editor

In short: a quagmire. A cesspool. A wretched hive of scam and villainy (see what I did there?).

By the time I drag myself away, I'm definitely a bit down, a bit blue, a bit defeated. And feel a bit dirty, not in a good way.

So...anybody looking for a writer?

Dubious Distinctions

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I've reached a new peak. A new point in my writing life. An unexpected and unlooked-for distinction. I was included on an inspiration chain email.

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No idea how common these are. It practically chirped at me: "This is for fun." "No pressure." "Just email it to twenty of your writer friends who will have twenty more friends to forward it along to." I felt obligated. Good lard,* I felt obligated.

I sent the person whose name was in position 1 a favorite poem, "Sharks" by Ada Limon. That was the easy part. In my sailor days, "Sharks are people too" became a mantra I repeated almost daily. When I stumbled into Ms. Limon on Twitter this morning, quite by accident, it was a wonderful reminder of her wonderful poem (and she graciously thanked me for my tweet, which was a very fun thing to have happen).

Phew. Sent that email off. But then came the email to another twenty writers.

I may know twenty writers. Let's count, shall we? I've had at least two or three teachers through Gotham Writers' Workshop. I took two writers' classes at Politics & Prose. Two of my college English professors are also working writers. I know a couple of freelancers in the city; one of my neighbors has an MFA; I've taken courses from two more writers through the Eckleburg Workshops; one of my grad school friends is a poet in Boston. (That's thirteen.) I can count four more--no, five--that I know through readings I've participated in at Kafe Bohem. Ok, and then the students from one of those Politics & Prose classes, that might be six more. And I suppose there are the other students from the online classes I've taken, only none of us have really kept in touch. There are a few people I know only through Twitter. And my college roommate who used to write poetry sometimes. And, of course, the writer who sent it to me.

God bless him, I'm sure he has loads of writer-peers he knows from his MFA program and his subsequent literary adventures, but once I pared down the list above to the people I felt reasonably (and only reasonably) comfortable including, I think it was seven people. I included a note at the top--basically saying they could participate if they wanted to, but that I wasn't going to be policing it--and sent it off, palms sweating. I'm not checking my email for the rest of the night. My stomach is in knots.

When Eleanor Roosevelt said to do one thing every day that scares you, I'm almost certain she wasn't thinking of pressing the "SEND" button on a chain email. But that's where I'm at.

On an unrelated note, anyone know a good shrink in the DC area to treat a case of self-diagnosed social anxiety disorder?

*I have a child. The A is intentional.

My Dumbphone: A Brief Lifestyle Manifesto

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I hate my smartphone. I do not think I am alone in this.

I became a smartphone user in--I think--2010. My first one was a Droid, with a Verizon plan that didn't limit me on data. I quickly became an addict.

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Wait. This story starts earlier. It goes back to college, at least.

Sophomore year of college, I broke my foot. I was stuck at school on a Sunday in February because it wasn't a normal school and I wasn't a normal student--it was the Naval Academy and I was a midshipman with a duty day (and a bad mood). Stomping over to one of the many gyms, pissed off about I-can't-remember-what, I missed a step and came down hard on the outside edge of my left foot.

It took almost four months for the problem to be diagnosed. The issue didn't really show up on x-rays (which I had every couple of weeks as my foot failed to heal, despite rotating assistance from crutches and a walking boot) because, if I recall all this correctly, it wasn't exactly a break--I had an unfused navicular bone, and I had actually broken the connecting tissues between the two parts of what should, in an adult female, have already been a single bone. When I wasn't using the foot, the swelling would recede and the pain would diminish. As soon as I started to walk on it unassisted, the ligament running from the navicular and up the inside of my calf would start pulling on the bone fragment again and the whole thing would flare up like the National Zoo decked out for Christmas.

Eventually, corrective surgery was completed sometime after finals and I got to spend my summer taking Film and Literature in a cast instead of running around in the mud pretending to be a Marine. But the damage was done: I had become hooked on casual gaming.

Midshipmen don't have a lot of free hours. Classes are mandatory, most meals are mandatory, there are mandatory formations and mandatory inspections and after-class sports and marching drills and lecture series, all mandatory.

Here are the things I couldn't participate in while on crutches: outdoor formations (like the big one at lunch that tourists love), intramural boxing, intramural half marathon, and Highland Dancing. This situation left gaping holes in my schedule, which I filled, not with great literature or even shitty writing, but with COLLAPSE!

I got really, really good at COLLAPSE! I got really, really good grades, too, but my gosh you should have seen me play COLLAPSE!

Five or six years later, my foot was fine but my Droid made it far too easy to waste time--on casual games, on obsessively checking email, on tweeting my thoughts to the few people who cared.

Another couple of years and I was newly home from my last deployment, a humdinger at 322 days at sea. And my husband, sweet man he is, excitedly took me to the Apple store for another even smarter phone: an iPhone. Within a few days, I suggested he write an app that would let me turn it into a dumbphone when I wanted to.

"I want to be able to toggle a switch and only make/receive calls and texts," I told him. "I think people would pay for that."

"It's not possible," he informed me. "Apple would need to make it. It would involve settings developers can't touch."

Alack alack alack.

Another couple of years passing brings us to this week. I read this scary article on Huffington Post and remembered again how gung ho I was before her birth about my kiddo never watching TV or using a dread iThing before she was two, and how lax I've gotten about these rules, and how much of my own life has been taken by Angry Birds and Words With Friends and Draw Something! and Candy Crush and, most recently, Threes.

And, it's Lent. So add in a desire to discipline myself and the existential crisis brought on when you see your child with ashes on her forehead, and realize that yes, we all really are going to die.

"And," I told my husband, "I don't want to be remembered as Jacquelyn Bengfort: Pretty Good at Twitter and a Dab Hand at A Variety of Bubble Shooters."

So here's what I'm doing: a phone diet.

If I were a stronger person and also better at getting places without explicit turn-by-turn directions, I'd give up the smartphone altogether. But I'm not, so I'm self-limiting. For me, this means putting physical space between myself and the phone. We live in a tall skinny row house, and so, for now, my phone stays out of my pocket and remains in one of a few places: on the newel post for the level I am on. On the charger in the kitchen. In the window of my office. On the mantle in the master bedroom.

It's a small change, yes. But guess what: in two days it has already paid dividends. I've spent time outside that I wouldn't have. I've read a third of a way through a (fantastic) book I've been meaning to get to for a few (ahem) years. I started writing a new story.

Maybe I won't be declared the Voice of my Generation just because I started using my mobile device slightly less. But if it comes down to it, I'm ok with being remembered as Jacquelyn Bengfort: A Decent Writer, An Ok Cook, A Fantastic Mom & Wife and Wow She Read a Lot of Books.

Protection for Witnesses

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I read a great profile of the wonderful Lorrie Moore at The Millions today. (If you're bookish and you haven't been there, I recommend you stop reading this post now and head on over to that website, linked above. Then come back and thank me.) A sizeable portion of the article discusses one of the perennial concerns of writers and those who love them: borrowing. Borrowing. Because writers are often observers--even witnesses, standing one degree removed from life--it's almost inevitable that they're borrowing things from the people around them, whether strangers or friends.

Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.” (from Arianne Wack's The Millions profile of Lorrie Moore)

I recently wrote a story about a woman who worries that her boyfriend may accidentally kill her in his sleep. I stole some of the details surrounding this couple from people I know. I translated most of the details I stole into other details. Ultimately, the story is a fiction, the problems and dynamics of the couple a complete fabrication that may, but probably doesn't, reflect the reality of their real-life relationship. My husband, who is a great first reader for me, had only one comment about the story: "Don't let them see it."

This is a problem when you're working hard to publish your work.

And when you're actively promoting any work that does get published.

It's not the first time I've struggled with how to go about borrowing, or not, in my fiction. Last year I worked on one of my few realist stories, which was built from a pastiche of real-life source materials: things I saw in the Navy, details of a cousin's accident, snippets of stories from another relative's farm, bits of biography from someone I knew back in high school. Even the names were borrowed.

The story proved a failure (though I'd like to return to it one day), and had become a complete fiction in the process of being written and rewritten. Jack, the main character, was Jack: he lived only in my imagination, and his life was his own. But I worried, nonetheless, that if the people who helped inspire me read it, they would be more furious than flattered to have played a part in sparking my imagination.

Last year I went on an Anne Lamott streak, reading her memoirs Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required, her book on writing, Bird by Bird, and one of her novels, Imperfect Birds. In her writing she sometimes discusses borrowing--taking friends, say, bowling, with the stated understanding that she's going to be using them as inspiration.

Is that the most honest way to borrow? Do we owe that to the people around us?

And speaking of memoir, that space where borrowing turns into something closer to strict transcription of events as you recall them to have transpired--well, that's even trickier, isn't it? I've been trying my hand at a memoir built of flash-length essays (under 1000 words) about my time in the Navy. I'm quickly realizing that I may not want even to try to publish it, given that I may lose friends out of the deal (and that doesn't even begin to touch upon the difficulty in making sure I avoid revealing anything classified, which could lead to loss of my personal liberty in the form of a prison sentence, I suppose).

Incidentally, my husband suggests the solution to this particular problem is to set it in outer space. He lobbies me almost daily for a space opera.

Does the answer to my problems lie in a galaxy far, far away?

Add a degree in anthropology to the mix, which makes me passionate about accuracy in observation and getting things "right," and I'll admit I'm stymied. My favorite professor in grad school once said something to the effect that the main difference between writing anthropology and writing literature is that anthropologists have to stick to the truth, especially since truth is elusive. If the native wear green hats, then they must be written down as green hat wearers. A fiction writer can make the hats blue if that somehow better serves the story. But is making the hats blue enough to make the story your own? And it almost goes without saying that keeping the hats green won't save you if you get everything else wrong.

So. How do you deal with the question of borrowing in your work?

Wordhoarder

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Ironically, I recently learned that there’s a word for a wordhoard from one of my favorite ways to build a wordhoard: word of the day emails. Currently, I get the OED word of the day, although I used to get the (somewhat less fanciful) Dictionary.com email. (Note to self: try, again, to sign up for Dictionary.com emails...and check junk folder because you’ve definitely signed up with your current email address.)

from the fine folks of the Oxford English Dictionary

My largest wordhoard is a series of index cards that I can sometimes wrangle with a one-inch binder clip. (You know, when I’m feeling strong. This is not one of those days and there’s now a loose pile of index cards in my idea bin.) I built it during a 322-day deployment with the U.S. Navy, from March 2011-February 2012. When I enjoyed a word, it got a card. While I have (and will) always love language, I became especially geeky on that trip because 1) it was a long one and being a sort of uniformed Manic Pixie Dream Girl sprinkling the fairy dust of English lit nerdery helped me cope and 2) I was voluntarily teaching a vocabulary class to a rotating roster of Sailors and Marines hoping to raise their ASVAB scores.

That class deserves its own post. Suffice it to say I sometimes became breathless with excitement as I expounded on the glory of my mother tongue, and I would conclude class by recommending everyone replace their smoke breaks with short story breaks. (I recommended starting with Tony Earley's "Charlotte," and if you're lucky enough to have access to Harper's Magazine online or a copy of the Best American Short Stories 1993, I suggest you stop reading this post and go read it immediately.)

Here are some highlights from my 2011-2012 deployment wordhoard.

BLEB: a bubble; a blister or vesicle. This one becomes meaningful when you become a mother, it turns out. At the time I just liked how it felt in my mouth. Bleb. Bleb. Bleb. (The pleasant associations with this word are now long gone.)

REMORA: an obstacle, hindrance, or obstruction; any of several fishes of the family Echeneididae, having on the top of the head a sucking disk by which they can attach themselves to sharks, turtles, ships, and other moving objects. Obvious appeal to the seafarer. Looked this up in a dictionary so old the spine had actually fallen off and it was one of the few entries sporting a line drawing. Score.

OUROBOROS (alt. UROBOROS): a circular symbol of a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness. I used this one as an example of the serendipity of the English language when I was in teacher mode, trying to convince my students never to let an unknown word pass them by. First I drew one of these in a meeting (not knowing the word for it). Then a meeting-mate saw the word in a book he was reading and wrote it down for me. Then I looked up the definition. Then it came up in a book I was reading. Magical.

DARKLE: to grow dark, gloomy, etc.; to appear dark or show indistinctly. It’s also fun to say. A nice word to bandy about around sunset while standing watch on the bridge.

CHAPTALIZE: to increase the alcohol in a wine by adding sugar. Possibly it appeals to me because of my limited experience with beer brewing. I believe this practice is illegal.

GLACE: ice placed in a drink to cool it. It reminds me of one of the two words that kept me out of the state spelling bee: GLISSADE (to glide). The other? SHRIEK. Icouldabinahcontendah...if I could have spelled either of these words correctly under pressure. Quick, please, someone get me a drink. With glace.

PROCRUSTEAN: tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means. I want to have a whole chapter in a book some day that consists of only this word. Chapter 3. Procrustean.

SALVO: a round of cheers or applause; something to save a person’s reputation or sooth a person’s feelings; an excuse or quibbling evasion; a simultaneous or successive discharge of artillery, bombs, etc.; a round of fire given as a salute. One must love the English language for words like this one, with its many distinct meanings dependent entirely on the context of its use.

PICA: an abnormal appetite or craving for substances that are not fit to eat. Did you know that some pregnant women crave dirt? I was lucky. I just craved cookies.

MILQUETOAST: a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated. Challenge--call someone a milquetoast in such a way that they don’t realize they’re being insulted, and report back.

Just think, next time you hold a dictionary: all the words are there for you to write something amazing. You just need to pick the best ones and arrange them in the right order. Spill some ink. Organize some pixels via word processor. Build your wordhoard, and then deploy it to the best of your ability.

How do you build your own wordhoard? Any favorite words? Comment below!

 

God Bless Ben Schott, or, Preserving Napoleon

Jacquelyn Bengfort

writing drawing

I bought a copy of Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany two years ago. It’s hardback, with a pale lilac dust cover and tiny typeface.

It’s not a book one reads cover to cover--at least I don’t. Rather, it’s a dip-in book. For example: open to page 130 and you’ll find an explanation of how the “Proust questionnaire” as popularized by Vanity Fair got its name, along with Proust’s own answers to two such surveys, translated into English from the original French. Crack the spine at page twenty-five, meanwhile, and among other things you’ll find listed the characters that constitute Mystery Inc., which, lest you’ve forgotten, is the corporate name of the “darn kids” from Scooby-Doo.

When I find I have nothing percolating in my brain, when I have nothing to write about, there’s a game I play with this book. I dip in, flipping pages at random, until I find a fact or list or saying or diagram that makes me wonder. Then I wonder about it, on paper, for twenty minutes. I give myself plenty of space to make things up. When I was young I used to do this all the time, for myself, for my friends. If I didn’t have an explanation for how something worked or why it was the way it was, I came up with a semi-logical explanation and stated it has fact. (Example: I thought refried beans came by their texture because a “big boss man” in an office pre-chewed them all as a quality control measure. Both disgusting and inaccurate but it explained the texture.)

During the twenty minutes, I strictly forbid myself to use a search engine. It’s my personal belief that our wondering facilities are under threat of extinction, and I find this exercise useful for kickstarting a bout of wonderment. One of my favorite things to do used to be to try to place familiar actors in films I’ve seen before. Now I can pull up my IMDB app and find the complete filmography of any actor, down to commercials and late-night television show appearance, in nearly no time at all. So, you know, I need an impetus to wonder.

What follows here is a lightly edited sample of the sort of material that comes out of these writing sessions. This one was inspired by...well, you’ll see. Especially if you get a copy of the Quintessential and turn to page 57 and read the last line.

***

I’ve a book that claims the preserved penis of Napoleon was auctioned in 1977 for $3000. These are my immediate questions:

1. Does the purchaser display it?

2. How was it preserved?

3. Is it in good condition?

4. Do they mention it at parties?

and finally

5. Do you suppose the owner has any of the penises of other famous men of history?

My questions don’t stop there--man or woman? Who owns Napoleon’s penis today? Has the original buyer passed on? Was it willed to an unsuspecting inheritor? How does one react when one finds that instead of, say, 3000 bucks, one is to receive one (1) preserved penis, said to be that of Napoleon Bonaparte?

Furthermore, doesn’t Napoleon have any descendents? How do they feel about the whole affair? Wouldn’t they have some sort of legal claim over it? They do owe their lives, in part, to its exploits.

It also makes me wonder of more delicate things, being as I am so unfamiliar with death and the dead, up close. For example, I think I read once that men die erect. But then, what would the effect of embalming be on an erect penis? And maybe that only applied to men executed by certain specific means. The entry is vague; it reads “penis, preserved after autopsy.” So was it preserved flaccid? Or, like the taxidermied lion I visit each summer during family vacation, was it restored to its most glorious, one might say victorious, state?

And...it makes me wonder historical facts. Napoleon died ages ago, so who has had the penis in the interim? What circumstances necessitated the sale? Which auction house agreed to  handle the sale? This was pre-eBay, after all.

Meta-wondering--I wonder how much research it would take to answer all these questions. I wonder if, but for the mention of it in some dusty auction program almost fifty years old, the penis has been lost to history.

I wonder: could I write a series of stories about the penis?

I wonder: could I write a story about someone writing a story about the penis?

***

Fairly useless writing, about a dead man’s genitalia, no less. But it’s writing, and if you’re seeing this, you read it.

The only thing I know about Ben Schott is his name. He, like the preserved penis of Napoleon Bonaparte, remains for me shrouded in mystery. But I’ll say it again: god bless Ben Schott and his delightful books of oddities.