Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Metamorphosis and other writngs

When I was a student at University of CA at Santa Cruz, many many moons ago, a professor introduced me to a local author named Tillie Olsen and her book Silences, in which she discussed great authors of the world and what kept them from writing (or writing more). I also read her story "I Stand Here Ironing," reflecting silences because of motherhood. The story is about a mother whose oldest daughter's teacher needs her to come speak to him. In the story, the mother has an imaginary conversation with the teacher, in which she remembers the bits and pieces of her daughter's life. She excruciatingly reveals the times when she neglected her daughter, not because she meant her any harm but because she didn't know any better. It is a teary story, and fits well with the Silences book, especially with the incessant ironing. It is as much a story about the mother as it is about the daughter. None of us will live to our potential, the story seems to say. Or at least, none of those two will. It is very much worth the read.

I remember thinking that the story was telling me not to have kids - at least, not at an early age. I didn't, so I guess I thought I could escape such bad decisions (for my potential children, for myself). But Tillie Olsen taught me more than just the silences that a mother suffers. For she is the one who introduced me to Franz Kafka. Here was an author who also was stifled. His stifling was due to all the time he spent at a full-time day job as an insurance officer. In the end, he never finished whatever he wrote. He never finished The Trial, for instance, an amazing story about a man caught in such a bizarre and incredibly unfair court system that, when something similar arises today, we call it "Kafkaesque." (I've actually used that phrase in open court before. I think the judge knew the reference. Everyone else in the courtroom could figure it out, given the context in which I said it.)

The only work they say that Kafka completed is The Metamorphosis. This is one of the most magical works I've ever read. It would flit into my mind whenever I wondered if I ever was going to get the space to write again. It is about a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning and realizes he has turned into a cockroach. He can't get up because he has slept on his back (not a problem when he was a human, but quite the dilemma now that he is a cockroach). His first thought (after how to get up) is - why didn't the alarm go off? And how am I going to explain my tardiness to my boss? And will my suit fit? The story goes on from there. It's such a great story. Exactly what do you do when you've turned into a cockroach?

When I have felt silenced by life's day-to-day tasks, I have thought about Tillie Olsen and Franz Kafka. Their life stories give me a sense of camaraderie. They give me a sense of hope as well. They are the ones that made silence productive, even when it was not. Without his job in insurance, Kafka likely never would have reached such a point of utter frustration that he could imagine a story where a traveling salesman turns into a cockroach. Truly the absurdity of that image first had to come from a long frustration with the rat race itself. And Tillie Olsen likely would not have thought of a story titled "I Stand Here Ironing" had she not spent day after day doing just that. And so I think that my own silences over the years will be fruitful someday. Perhaps today. As my first Free Write says, Seek not the lost time, but the gained moments. In everything, there is a season. Allow the silences. For then, there will be time to write.

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