Lydia Netzer's Blog: Lydia Netzer

June 26, 2014

A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an op-ed column in the New York Times referencing my "15 Ways to Stay Married for 15 Years" post from 2012. Here's the link!
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Published on June 26, 2014 07:12 • 337 views

February 22, 2012

Recently we moved.

Instead of wisely and slowly sifting through our possessions first, and taking only what we wanted to keep, we paid movers to pack everything into boxes and bring it here, to the new house, where we would dutifully sort as we unpacked. We moved in a hurry. Living in that old house after our new one was bought seemed like continuing to live with that guy you've broken up with already, just because you had a lease together. And moving things bit by bit in an orderly fashion to the new house was like surreptitiously trying to date someone new at the same time you're still living with that guy. Even though it's not really cheating, you still sneak. And because you're not Jennifer Aniston and he's not Vince Vaughn, you don't end up falling back in love, you just move out at the end of the lease, and it's not funny, it's just awkward. And you forget everything that was in the bathroom, and you don't go back for it.

Anyway, we moved.

In the mountain of stuff we no longer want that is now sitting grumpily in our new house, there are a mazillion VHS tapes. These are objects that should have been purged years ago. We haven't watched any of them since we moved the last time. We don't even have a VCR connected to our TV. If we did hook up a VCR, and managed to remember what the button "Rewind" does, I guarantee the tapes would look awful in 1080 resolution. It's at a point with these VHS tapes that I don't even think the Salvation Army wants them. I don't think anyone wants them. But every time we began to hustle them into bags to push them out the door, we got all oogly about it. Here's our copy of "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which we watched and rewound several times. Here's "Household Saints," one of the first movies I ever owned. "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael." "Go." "Four Rooms." "Sweetie." Here's that copy of "City of Lost Children" that was almost impossible to get. "Evita." Shut up, I have the whole thing memorized. I have a romantic attachment to these objects -- they remind me of when we were younger, poorer, and dumber, when I was working at a 1/2 porn video store during graduate school, when our TV was small and given to fits of rage instead of large and austere and firmly in control of itself.

So I put them, all, ruthlessly in the trash. I kept the ultrasound videos from my kids. I kept a couple of other personal things. But anything that I can get on DVD or download, I tossed.


I have a romantic attachment to my books too. But I don't need to tell you that. You know I have the first paperback edition of Moby Dick I read in high school, with all my scrawled little teenaged marginal notes. You know I have the Candide I got in college, the used Italo Calvino I got in Milan, all my signed copies of friends' books, including stuff you can't hardly find ever like My Horse and Other Stories by Stacey Levine and You're a Bad Man Aren't You by Susannah Breslin. I like books. I have a lot. And I will never, ever, ever get rid of them. EVER.

But will my children? Will their children? Will publishing really change forever like everyone is saying it will, so that we'll all be walking around in future times with retinal projectors that allow us to store small libraries behind our ear drums and books will seem dumb like VCRs and twisty knobs on televisions, and jello molds? If I throw away these tapes, will I tomorrow throw away my Gormenghast novels? With the same reckless abandon? Will I?

Moment of panic. Moment of almost pulling those VHS tapes back out of the trash. Then, relief.

Here's what I realized. Books are not like VHS. They're not like DVDs or film canisters or analog recordings or vinyl. You can't say "Well, I can get my books on my Kindle" just like you can say "Well, I can get my songs on my iPod." They're not like that. Here's what they're really like: Theater. Live concerts. You can make them work just with your eyes. You can make all the parts function just by looking at them. It's not a product, it's an entertainment. It's not an object, it's an experience. An experience you can collect, and keep in pretty rows, and share, and and have again and again. And then I felt much better.

I felt better because not only did I NOT have to keep all those VHS tapes, and not only did I NOT have to get rid of all my books and start buying up eBooks on Google, but this: publishers are going to be okay. They really are. Call me Pollyanna or a crack addict or in denial or call me ignorant but here's what I'm saying: Books aren't going anywhere.

Things may change, in publishing. E-books rise. Paperbacks fall. Publishers will try fetishizing, and niche marketing, and different production models. Fine. But people will still go to the theater. People will still go to live music shows. And people are still going to have books, want books, read books, hoard books, dive into books, and love books. Believe it.
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Published on February 22, 2012 09:35 • 936 views

December 12, 2011

I write because I believe I am a terrible person and I want to explain.

I know I am not all terrible. But I know I am terrible in a significant percentage. I love well but I am also bad. This is true.

I used to assume I was good throughout, because who doesn't think they're good? Even though I knew philosophically the usual things about yin and yang, about mind and body, about id and superego, as a young person I never really applied the concept to myself. When I looked in the mirror, I defaulted to that magical standard of secular humanism: basic goodness of humankind. When I looked at my friends I assumed the same thing. In frowning on the concept of original sin I unconsciously embraced the equally ridiculous concept of original piety. Ridiculous maybe, but true. Everyone says: "I'm a good person."

My badness is a truth of which I have only recently become aware, and I became aware of it through writing fiction.

When I began writing, as a young person with high ideals and a halo around my head, I created stories that were smart and funny, but ultimately, fluff. They contained violence, madness, and grief, but it was a detached and dissembled darkness, a darkness at arm's length. I dabbled and was desultory. I created characters only to serve an abstraction, and plots that had no real connection to my life. A cartoon version of what suffering would look like, a pencil sketch of reality, with absurd backgrounds and farcical props. What does a good person write about, after all? Nothing that bleeds real blood. Nothing that dies actual death.

Then things happened in my life: children happened, with the accompanying pain and devotion. I fell in love for real, with the accompanying fear. My mother died, with desolation. I began to find it impossible to continue to live this life without introspection, this hysterical cartoon life of reckless assumption and convenient farce. My friends and I always used to joke that we were perpetually navel-gazing, always starting sentences with "I feel--." This may have been true, but guess what? The truth doesn't actually live in your navel along with your feelings and your boyfriends and your pets. There's someplace else, someplace that I never gazed, because I'm not one to sit in the bathtub and stare at my knees, or meditate, or ever shut up.

As I began to really grow up, I was becoming aware of an inner awfulness, in spite of myself. It's like realizing that your body isn't just a balloon with air inside, but a construct of meat and organs and fluids. A knowledge you can go on for years without recognizing, but eventually have to accept. And while there was no way I was going to sit around thinking about it, or talking about it, or god forbid understanding it, I did start writing about it, and letting it through in the work. (Parenthetical note: Several years ago, I purposefully engaged in my first real bout of introspection, and the result of it was strangely this: I like chili. I really like it. It's my favorite food. Many times, I considered starting a blog post about this, but thought it was too silly.)

So, my novel is coming out next summer. In this book, I began to present myself in a new way. There is real darkness in it, along with real love. It is funny but sad, loving but cold. It has some death in it, but also some very happy sex, and some falling in love. It has disease and terrible loss, but it also has loving parents and a birth. While the book has a lot of comedy in it, it is the first thing I've ever written that has a serious side too. A book that is revelatory in an honest way, that exposes things about me that are real.

Here's an example: I took my adopted mother off life support in 2004 and she died. Although it was medically logical and recommended by the doctors, I still feel guilty and dark about doing that. In my novel, the main character at one point, standing in a neighborhood party, considers screeching, "I FEEL BAD! I FEEL BAD THAT I PULLED THE PLUG ON MY MOTHER! I KILLED HER AND I FEEL BAD!" She thinks it in all caps. This is true, and this is me.

I worry that I am not a good enough person to be a mother. That's me. I worry that I am a shitty wife. Again, me. I'm not looking in the mirror any more. I'm not looking at anything. Instead, in writing this book I have gone crawling down to a hole that is deep inside me, a black hole surrounded by claw marks and mold. Before, I did not know that it was there. But now, I have laid myself down next to it and plunged my arms into it. In dragging up whatever writhing awful thing came to my hand, and pulling it out, and examining it, I was publicly eviscerated myself. And it really did make things better. I don't feel bad about killing my mother any more. That is actually true.

I can recognize the demons on paper better than I can recognize them in my mind. I can find the black well through writing in a way that I could never find it in real life.

Fictionalizing my inner monster led me to an important fact: this is a fine reason to write fiction. Maybe the only reason. The stuff that matters comes out of that dark, dirty well. And maybe contextualizing that stuff, and explaining it, and putting it into a narrative that makes sense not just to readers but to myself, is a decent purpose. Maybe this is the way I govern my inner animal, now that I can look in the mirror and see it, and recognize that it's there.

So it's funny and dark. It's bright and sad. It bleeds and it laughs. It's me, and this is the only way I can explain it.
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Published on December 12, 2011 09:56 • 178 views

November 16, 2011

I had this hoodie, see? And it was the only thing that would let me really write. Buried in its terry fleece depths, chewing on its strings, pushing my thumbs through the holes in its ragged cuffs, I could really let myself go into my novel like I never intended to come out. If you are a writer, you know how it goes. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The writing, that is.

If you are not a writer, you may not realize how superstitious we writers can be about what makes it work.

Some things help you write. A smell (eucalyptus, but never flowers) or food (chicken shawarma, and always chocolate) or maybe even a particular shirt. Or hoodie. You develop favorites, and you surround yourself with them and say to your brain: "Go." In fact, these objects can become so significant to your process that you can't function without them. When this happens, then that object becomes not only helpful, not only nice to have, but "real." Like a specific perfume becomes your real perfume (West Indian Lime, Crabtree and Evelyn), a particular article of clothing, a pair of socks, a hair clip becomes your real hair clip. This happened to a t-shirt of Joshilyn's, which originated as a t-shirt of mine, many years ago. It said ROAD PONIES on the front. It became her "real" t-shirt and no other t-shirt would suffice. This is also what happened with the real hoodie. Am I getting to crazy for you? It's really not all that difficult to grasp -- it's like a uniform. It makes you feel like doing your job.

Let me put it a different way. My literary turn-ons...

In 1996: Cigarettes. Martinis. Solitude. The city.

In 2011: My real hoodie. My fantasy pants. Vicks. Limes. Sonic ice.

Things have changed. I had two kids. I can't wait on tequila and solitude. I no longer live in a big city and I no longer smoke. I needed new signals for my brain, preferably signals that do not preclude me from parenting my children when needed.

So this hoodie. It is a simple garment. A black hoodie with athletic stripes down the sides of the arms. It's not soft fleece; it's terry on the inside. I don't know when I started seeing it as my writing uniform but it happened. And then it happened so much that the thing began to deteriorate. Holes formed. Threads frayed. It was washed a zillion times and it faded. In spots. But it was still so perfect and so wonderful... I could not let it go, even though I looked absolutely insane while wearing it outside the house. A small part of my brain could see that I looked like a crazy homeless person staggering around town in this vile scrap of hoodie, but most of my brain was saying, It's fine, it's fine, it's totally fine! You need this hoodie, or else your novel is never going to be finished.

I did finish my novel (thank you, hoodie). And I happened to be in France when I finished. Maybe it was the wine, or the Seine, or the bicycles, but some perverse imp took over my brain, and I thought to myself, "If I throw out this hoodie in France, I will never be able to take it back. I won't be able to fish through the garbage or wonder about getting it back. It will be final, and I know it's the right thing to do." So I threw away the real hoodie in France. Because in the giddy aftermath of having torn the last page out of my typewriter (not really) to holler, "DONE!" I had forgotten that I would actually have to write more things, after this. For which the hoodie might come in handy. And I knew that throwing out the hoodie was the right thing to do because it was really, really awful.

Upon our return to the states, my cheerful fog parted and I realized that 1. I had to revise my novel and even write more novels and 2. I could do neither without the real hoodie.

Panic ensued. No amount of West Indian Lime or ice from Sonic or handknit socks or fantasy pants could help. I needed a replacement hoodie immediately.

I went to the store and bought half a dozen potential hoodie replacements. I knew I could not hope to find an exact duplicate, so I veered into cardigans. Maybe, I thought, I could actually find something to attach myself to that wouldn't look like shit in a week, and that I might actually be able to wear out of the house without shame. Now wouldn't that be strange?

Out of my potential hoodies, one ended up having snaps under fake buttons. Dumb, and it was also too hot. One was a very large brown sweater with shaggy snarles of yarn hanging off it all over the place, and it really seemed likely that it could become real, but no. The sleeves were too long. Not even Joshilyn could make it real, though she tried too. Maybe it was too brown. There were other failures. Too stiff, too formal, too bright, or maybe sleeves too short.

Then I found it. The magical hoodie replacement for which I had been searching. It was a cardigan, no buttons or snaps, with a foldy collar, and long sleeves but not too long. It's a thin knit, warm but not hot, and so nondescript it disappears. In my author photo, I am wearing it. Can you see the cardigan? I think not.

Now the story gets really strange. This next part might make you believe in unicorns or else the sweet sweet magic of fairies. Recently I was at our summer place in Pennsylvania, and I was digging around on a seldom-used coat rack, lifting away layer after layer of old scarves, strange hats, and jackets. At the bottom of the hook, I saw something absolutely astonishing. A black hoodie, with stripes down the side. I'm not claiming that this hoodie, clearly placed here in Biblical times, was my hoodie, somehow transported back from the garbage can where I hurled it in France. I know it's not my real hoodie -- it's got no holes in it and the strings aren't chewed. In fact, it was almost pristine. A brand new, pristine, powerful writing hoodie which I now own in addition to the powerful writing cardigan that I had been cheerfully calling a hoodie for months.

So now when I go running around the house, shrieking at Dan, "WHERE IS MY REAL HOODIE? I NEED IT!" I know it's not a hoodie I'm looking for. It's the power. The power is in lime fizzy drinks, it's in pear deodorant, in bullet-shaped ice, in clumpy fur slippers. It's Dumbo's little feather. It's Mina Murray's garlic necklace in fleece terry. It's the one ring, Excalibur, and Zeus' aegis in soft, battleship grey polyester. And it's not going anywhere.
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Published on November 16, 2011 03:29 • 151 views