Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hot nun poem

I put your letter under my left breast -- 
They say that's nearest the heart
At last, weary, I tried to get to sleep
But love that has been wakened knows no night...
I lay asleep -- no, sleepless -- because the page you wrote 
Though lying on my breast, has set my womb on fire.

-- Constance of Angers (a nun) to Baudri of Borgueil (a monk who some theorize was gay)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Getting myself to a nunnery...or at least into a few books about nunneries

Among the many things I don't understand (grits, polenta, heavy metal, hominy, the allure of Sarah Palin, rottweilers) are nuns. I always feel a little squirmy when I see one. My internal dialogue goes something like this:

Respectful me: "What a nice thing to devote yourself to making the world a better place."
Feminist me: "Of all the things a woman can be now, you chose being a fucking NUN?"
Agnostic me: "Bride of Christ?"
Fashion me: "I'd shoot myself if I had to wear those shoes."
Nymphomaniac me: "It must suck to really need to get laid and then remember, oops, you're a nun."
Cynical me: "How many  school children have you beaten? Bitch."
Guilty me: "I hate myself." 

But seriously, the little I know about nuns is shrouded in...Julie Andrews. In my limited experience, nuns are either young and just waiting for their Captain (whom I bet likes nothing better than a good spanking behind closed doors), or old but still good for belting out Climb Every Mountain. And the only nun I ever knew personally left the nunnery for the love of her life, who, it turned out, wasn't so much Jesus as the woman who lived down the street from us when I was a kid.

So here I am, in the name of heartbreak, immersing myself in nunnery history. We know women got banished to nunneries for behaving badly (meaning shagging men they weren't supposed to shag, sometimes also referred to as falling in love), but how often did that happen? Like was there one whore of Babylon at every nunnery, so they were evenly distributed, or were there nunneries that specialized in imprisoning women who fell under dopamine's spell?

A stack of academic books on nun history, including one published by the University of Chicago Press titled Nuns Behaving Badly, is sitting on my coffee table now, along with an amber ale.

Got a question about nuns? Then I suddenly appear to be your girl. (But not your bride of Christ).

Monday, August 15, 2011

On camel toes and muffin tops

Body metaphors are among the many things I'm exploring in The Little Book of Heartbreak. I'd never stopped to think about it, but while I've never met a metaphor I didn't like, those that play on the body are typically my favorites. What's not to love about "brain fart", "muffin top" and "camel toe," I ask you?

Part of why I love about them is remembering the very first time I heard each one. A co-worker once used the word "brain fart" in a meeting with our humorless boss; my friend Kelly -- always the arbiter of hip -- taught me "muffin top," and while I'm not certain I first read "camel toe" in a blog reference to Paris Hilton, in my mind the term means Paris Hilton.

Turns out that "heartbreak" is a little different than camel toe or brain fart, or even brown nose. It's what's called a primary metaphor -- it's rooted in a bodily sensation associated with emotion, and pretty much no matter what the language, it will translate more or less the same way. In short, ask a native speaker of Berber what "camel toe" means on a metaphorical level, and even though he might be deeply familiar with camels and their toes, he'll have no idea what you're talking about (and not just because north African nomadic women aren't known for wearing bikinis or vinyl hot pants). But ask him how "heart" + "break" translates and he'll know exactly what you're talking about.

Apologies here to linguists who specialize in metaphor, because I know I'm vastly oversimplifying your professional life, but "heartbreak" is, I think, similar to other metaphors that are more or less universal: anger is hot (often a hot, overflowing liquid, in fact), fear is cold, happy is up, sad is down.

And now my challenge, dear reader: pair your favorite body metaphor with another metaphor and see what you come up with.

Try this one on for size: "brain fart" + "pillow talk."

Monday, August 8, 2011

The lowdown on my book about heartbreak (FAQs)

For those of you who want the skinny on what my book, The Little Book of Heartbreak (LBH), is about and why I'm writing it, here are the FAQs, real and imagined:

What is LBH about?

LBH is about the notion and experience of romantic heartbreak: about why getting dumped feels as bad as it does, about the universality of not just the experience but also the term "heartbreak", about wallowing, about what music, literature, history, science, and popular culture can tell us about love gone wrong. LBH will touch on subjects ranging from neurobiology to medieval history to the genius of Nick Cave.

Why are you writing LBH?

I'm a firm believer in bibliotherapy. Books can heal, and I don't mean in a new agey, pop psych kind of way -- I mean that by engaging with our pain on an intellectual level and feeding the beast with knowledge, we can get to a higher level of understanding about it AND distract ourselves from the immediacy of the daggers in our chests.

I owe my life to both nonfiction and fiction titles that explore depression and heartbreak, like The Noonday Demon: The Atlas of Depression, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Crying: A Natural and Cultural History of Tears, but whenever I was in the throes of heartbreak, I found myself craving a book that didn't yet exist: a tome that explained why I was acting like such a nutter, engaged me intellectually, gave me perspective, and looked at what I was experiencing through different lenses. A book that helped me to recover but wasn't self-helpy, trite, or just plain stupid.

So I set out to write that book. 

How did you come up with the idea for LBH?

When I was in graduate school in journalism at Berkeley, I did a radio piece on love gone wrong that specifically covered what exactly the pain of heartbreak feels like and why social psychologists think it exists. I was struck by how engaged people were with the story -- everyone who I interviewed and I knew listened to it had something to share. It struck me perhaps nothing is more universal in the human experience -- we don't all become parents, we don't all get cancer, we don't all chuck it all and join a commune -- but nearly every one of us has his or her heartbroken.

Why you?

I'm a recovering expert. Although I'm happily married now, before I met my husband, it's fair to say I got dumped as often and predictably as it rains in Seattle. Okay, so I exaggerate, but according to my scrap paper tally, I was dumped at least a dozen times, about half of which resulted in medium heartbreak (the kind that makes you cry, qualifies as profound disappointment, but you can concede after awhile wasn't so bad because the guy wasn't "the one" and/or had red flags sprouting around him like hair on an old lady's chin), and a quarter of which resulted in extreme heartbreak (the kind that makes you wish you were a lemming because hurling yourself off a cliff sounds like a great idea because he really did seem to be "the one").

I've been ditched after moving across the country to be with someone, via email and over instant messenger, in a Honda Civic, in my own kitchen, and on my birthday.

I'm also fairly certain I've broken the hearts of three or perhaps six individuals, several of whom barely spoke English, and one of whom I almost regretted dumping because he introduced me to the band Hem

So, yeah, I think I have a fair amount to say on the subject. 

Who is your audience? 

Let's be real: men who will read a book about heartbreak are likely few and far between. My guess is that women will dig this book -- women like me who read broadly (medieval history! pop reference! best sellers! Mary Roach! Madame Bovary! obscure books about the history of dirt in London!), have been known to overindulge in Two Buck Chuck, are left cold by self-help books, and are confounded by the perils of the modern dating paradigm (did I sleep with him to soon? what does that cryptic email mean? what do you mean I shouldn't text him until he texts me? should I not have done a bong hit in front of him? was it the ratty red thong or the fact that I identified a little too much with Bridesmaids?)

When is the book coming out? 

LBH will be published in February 2013, which means that my manuscript is due in, uh, six months.

Are you scared? 

Do bears shit in the woods? Totally. But I'm also happy like a Mai Tai on the beach.

So you think you can write a book without becoming an asshole?

It's now official: of the many things I'm bad at (math, swimming and diving, cooking dinner without making a mess, being a lesbian), writing a book cannot be one of them.

Last week Plume and I agreed to hop in the proverbial sack together. The word sack, the outline sack, the deadline sack, the scary sack. "I want to write a book" has transmogrified to "I am writing a book," and scary has never felt better. For the first time in my life I'm neither deluding myself nor bullshitting someone else when I say, "I'm a writer."

I have to write 40,000 words by February 2012. I sat down and did the math (because even I know how to divide, if barely and only with a calculator), that comes to about 2,000 words or four single-spaced pages of non-drivel a week. That means that my son will watch a lot more Jonny Quest, eat a lot more Trader Joe's mac 'n' cheese from the box, and spend a hell of a lot of time banished to Sodor; my husband will even more regularly ask me if he has any clean boxers; and our cats frequently alert me to the state of the litter box by shitting elsewhere.

Forty thousand words in six months is no minor challenge, but in some ways to me the larger issue is: How do I write a book and not become insufferable to my friends and acquaintances? Let's face it -- one of the most obnoxious sentences in the English language is, "I'm writing a book," while "my book" and "my agent" compete for the most obnoxious possessive + noun combination (though if one lives in Hollywood and/or is rich, I expect one could include "my screenplay," "my stylist", or "my Louboutins"). 

I have one friend who shall remain nameless who has written a book and become an asshole. To be fair, he was trending toward asshole before he wrote the book, but the book really sealed the deal. (No, Doug M., I'm not talking about you...) I'm sure this is not an uncommon pattern, and I promise to do my best not to follow it.

You'll tell me as soon as I have a tinge of asshole, right?