Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Evidence, Part II

WELL. WHAT A MONTH IT'S BEEN.

I don't know if you're aware of this but I write things, and in the last several weeks I've received evidence from multiple sources that I write things pretty well. This evidence is not yet visible to the public, but if you want to know about it when it happens, subscribe to my newsletter now, and the next issue - which I think will go out during Thanksgiving week sometime - will link you to as many of them as it can.

In the meantime I wanted to write a post, because the next post is already in the can and it's going to be an examination of one of the invisible pieces of evidence, and that would be two of those posts in a row, so here's a something-else post.

And what I want to write about today is severalfold. I'm on a plane right now, having finished a book this afternoon that I'll be recommending for years, Code Name Verity-level interesting, which made me almost cry twice near the end. I want to explain about that, how it feels to not be able to cry during the majority of your waking life because of the medication you're on, and knowing that books rarely make you cry anyway because you're engaged in the language more than the experience of them (movies make you cry more easily, but...still, the medication), and still almost crying at this terrific fucking book, but seeing very well with your analytic mind that the book is too weird for the mainstream, too densely intelligent for most readers, too much and yet so astonishing that you can't even begin to strategize about reviewing it like a normal person, without making the review only three words: READ IT YOURSELF.

I'm thinking at length about this post, though. Much news has come to me in November that is just the same: stuff that Mean Brain can't explain away as not a big deal or due to favoritism. That was two years ago, nearly three, and this is now, and I thought it would take forever and now it's all happening too fast, almost too fast to enjoy.

Some days ago I put up a post on Medium, and I'll tell you why. I knew that the tentpole of it was the kind of mellow life lesson that would play well on self-improvement blogs, to broad audiences, but I did not want to go to the trouble of pitching those places and then having editors "smooth out" my writing. Basically: the same reason that people self-publish. I self-published a gleeful VC Andrews knock-off through Lulu some years ago (and I regret it, for reasons too practical to go into in this post), but I learned at that time that people generally self-publish to maintain editorial control and because they have the marketing chops (or the platform) not to need a press's help. I don't really have a platform, and I definitely have zero marketing chops. But I understand Medium, I wasn't trying to sell anything, what I'd written was short and appealing, and I have a decent social network now.

Lessons. Expertise. Hanging around and listening.


And the problem is that I have no time, I have no time, my life is exploding with opportunities and good news and books to read and people to meet and topics to write about and essays to think about and experiences to have, but what do I do about feeling unmoored and torn in two? Prioritizing writing (REALLY DOING THAT, not lip-servicing that) is one thing; truly having the physical space to unroll my creativity (such a blessing!) is a second thing; keeping the parts of my life from falling in on each other, like cards set against each other too perilously, is a completely other thing, a thing on the other side of some kind of line.

Yet I have the evidence that it is worthwhile. That it is happening, that it has its own momentum now. People are clapping for my Medium story. [redacted]. That's tangible, visible.

From certain political perspectives, the world is kind of burning down a little bit. 2017 has been a very bad year for many of my friends and loved ones. But my shit is blowing up, as the kids say, in 2017, and I feel guilty and grateful in equal measure. What do I do with that? How do I arrange my face? How do I square my next publication announcement with the next school shooting? As ever, life is all things happening at once, not tidily portioned out as in a math problem.

Enough rambling. I have work to do.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Anatomy of an Essay

Last time we were together, I pointed you toward this essay I wrote, which the Los Angeles Review (online) saw fit to publish. I am so glad about this, because it's a very LA-steeped story, from the location to the pretentious people to the title being a riff on Joan Didion,* who's always prominent in picture collages of LA writers.

People who've read it have asked me how much of it is fictionalized. The answer is almost none. The parts where the sentences begin with "I imagine" are not true to life, and I changed a name due to circumstances too tangled to explain. But the rest I described as I saw it. You can go to the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, if you don't believe me, and see the well-dressed douchebags and vagina waterbed pods for yourself. I wrote it with a starkness, an aggressiveness, that is not my usual register, and I juxtaposed things kind of unnaturally to make a series of points, and I don't have, like, JAMA studies proving the thing about babies and yellow (though the internet has loads of information about that - I didn't just make it up). But everything I describe in the story happened the way I describe.

You can see the aforementioned pods in the left center of this photo. 

The backstory: two friends were staying at the Standard. They'd come to LA for AWP in March-April of 2016. We were joined in the restaurant by two additional friends, one in town for the same reason but staying elsewhere, the other a resident of Los Angeles; the LA friend stayed for the rooftop experience while the other friend left. That's why the numbers and names get a little jumbled. Trying to explain these circumstances artfully sounded less appealing than just letting it dangle.

The three of us, the two friends staying at the Standard and I, made much of the insane patriarchal environment of the hotel while we were there. It wasn't something I noticed, alone, afterward, and decided to explore. All of us talked about it, laughed about it, yelled about it, and all of us wrote essays. The original plan was to see if someone would publish all three of them, three different takes on the same experience. That didn't work out, alas, but I still love the idea.

I wrote mine pretty quickly, and pretty soon after the event. Not much of my usual stewing & brewing. I wrote it in time to hand it in as a final project for one of my CSUN classes in late April or early May, and I read some aloud to the class. They laughed, and gasped, and asked me how much of it was true.

Then I sent it out - only, as it happens, to the Los Angeles Review. It seemed so intrinsically an LA story that I didn't know if any of my other goal publications would give a damn about it. My memory is that I waited a while to see if my friends wanted to send their essays out too, and once that possibility closed, I'd missed the open submissions period for the LAR and had to wait a few more months. I sent it in late November of 2016, six or seven months after I finished it, and I got a positive reply in mid-June of 2017, about seven months later, and it appeared in August of 2017, not quite a year and a half after the events in it.  On this occasion I wasn't deterred by revision time; the piece was hardly edited at all from how I initially set it down. (Sometimes that happens. Usually not.)

Above: the anatomy of an essay, from inspiration to publication. I'm explaining this because I rarely have such a strong, fact- and date-based memory of how a piece came to be, and such specific detail feels helpfully illustrative to me. This was an easy go, aside from the lag time between finishing & sending and between sending & hearing back.

It isn't always so. A fraught piece I have on my mind right now, about Woody Allen - I don't remember which of the news stories I read about him inspired it, and I don't remember when I drafted it, or whether I edited it with a strategy or not. I have information in my email about when I submitted it and when a publication asked for revisions, and I can tell you exactly why I've been putting off doing those revisions ( = they're too hard). But the beginnings are murkier, and that's the norm for me.

Sometimes I use this blog as a primary source for research on when I wrote things and how I worked on them. But in the last couple of years I have become unhelpfully vague, here, about the stuff I'm working on. Part of this is because my writing practice has changed, grown looser (lazier?), become more binge-y than bit-by-bit-y. I can't tell a serial story about any of it: the idea comes in one day and the essay whooshes out two days (or six months) later, in one big blurt, so there's nothing to say.

Another part is that Caitlin Moran thing when you stop talking to your friends about the guy. My writing process is much less interesting to me now than all the other stuff I've taken to writing about on this blog, and anyway it can't be that unique: I sit down and I write, or I stare at the page, or I read my own words and try to figure out how to replace them with better ones. Sometimes this takes place in longhand, and sometimes I type. Sometimes deadlines help me, but mostly they don't. I hit the same walls a lot: running out of enthusiasm for the idea I started with, feeling like I don't have enough time to do justice to an idea, finding I don't have enough load-bearing walls to build a room. If this isn't interesting to me, surely it isn't to you.

This blog still interests me, for the record. But I'm in the process of determining how to use it for anything other than a promotional tool. I was thinking of explaining a significant hour I spent on the road between I-10 and Mecca, California, but I might knead it into an essay instead. I wanted to talk about my experience at a writing workshop in Santa Fe, but I don't want to step on the toes of the people I met there. The more topics I come up with, the more I divert them away from this space, for one reason or another. It's a puzzle, but I'll solve it.


*After I announced this influence in my newsletter (are you subscribed to my newsletter?), a helpful person pointed out that Yeats originated the phrase "slouching towards Bethlehem," and Didion appropriated it. This is true. However, the appropriation is arguably more famous at this time than the origin, and there's more than a little Los Angeles in that.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Things that Are Happening

Earlier this week I wrote a scary post about a big change I'm initiating gradually over the next few months, a change that's directly related to privileging creativity in my life. Which is basically what this blog is about. But I chickened out on it at the last minute. There are good reasons why I should not put up that post, and I decided to acknowledge them instead of going forward and possibly ending up like this


. But there's so much stuff I want to write about in this space that I kind of have to start blogging after a three-month break so here's a post and I'm sorry it's not the more daring one.

So! Here we are!

1. I have made a zine, and it's called Aphorisms on Surrealism, and it's $3. Please Paypal me, masonklc at gmail dot com, if you'd like one. Include your mailing address and I will send it to you; if you don't include your mailing address I'll just keep your money.

I've never seen zines bound with safety pins, but it was what I had on hand.

In case you know a thing or two about surrealism, yes, the project of writing aphorisms related to surrealism is by its very nature contradictory and improper, and that is the point. You, sir, will enjoy my zine. Three dollars, please.

Another zine, even shorter and only a single dollar in cost, will be coming along shortly. It's called How to Be Cool. There's a longer one I'm thinking about making, but I want it to round up a rejection or two from actual markets before I try and print it myself.

2. I missed the opportunity to share this essay with you. It appeared in the Los Angeles Review in August. I am exceedingly proud of it. There'll probably be a whole post about it sometime, because it came to be in a series of events that are pretty instructive.

3. I am teaching a workshop about sentences on November 11. If you're in the Los Angeles area, please email me, either at the address above or at the one in the sidebar, and we'll talk about whether you would enjoy attending. It's $35 for three solid hours of conversation and guidance regarding sentences. That's a very low hourly rate. Take advantage of it while I'm still cheap. Someday I'll be famous and expensive and then you'll regret not taking a class from me when I was still charging less than $15 an hour for my time, won't you? Yes, you sure will.

4. You may have missed a couple of Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) interviews that dropped since the last time we were together. Here's one with Zoe Zolbrod, here's one with Jessica Piazza, and here's one with Kristi Coulter. Coming up soon are duncan b. barlow (a very, very nice dude and a fine writer who I thought was British for no reason I can determine) and Genevieve Kaplan (whose interview is different from literally all the others). Plus a couple of other writers who have expressed interest but haven't gotten back to me. As soon as I nag them into getting back to me, there will be more interviews.

Also, I reviewed Alice Anderson's new memoir, Some Bright Morning, I'll Fly Away, for Fiction Advocate.

5. I received two acceptances within a week of each other: one for a pure-fiction short story (the only one I've written in the past couple of years), and one for the Kathy Ireland story, which was a real treat to receive after a pile of rejections on that story. I'm really looking forward to sharing those pieces with everyone once they are published. I also received a painful rejection for the secret project and a colorful assortment of other rejections for various essays. And two rewrite requests: one that I haven't gotten back to, and one that hasn't gotten back to me.

I'm listing all this because people have started to ask me if I've been doing any writing lately, in a tone that makes me feel sort of guilty and idle, and I can say well, not really, but there's been a reasonable amount of activity in my writing life nonetheless.

6. The amount of reading in my life has been minimal of late, because I read a long book I strongly disliked in midsummer and it put me off reading, the way eating an entire pan of brownies will put you off brownies for at least a little while. (Probably.) I've got to roar back to it, though, because I have a special bookcase now for my not-yet-read books and it's completely full.

7. Last week it was my birthday. I am 36 years and seven days old. I believe I've officially passed the common age of rom-com heroines, which is honestly kind of a relief.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Better or Worse

Last week I watched the 1987 film Mannequin, with Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall. For whatever reason, this movie was a big part of my early life. For a time, it was my most favorite movie, to the point where I drew pictures of the two main characters and put them in a locket I wore because I loved them sooooo much.

This is not easy for me to admit. But I was quite young, around seven.

Seeing Mannequin nearly 30 years later was a weird experience. I remembered the outline of the plot, and I remembered some aspects of the performances, but most of what I remembered was inflection, turn of phrase, sound and look. The way some lines of the screenplay were said has been hanging around in my neural matter for all this time; it was like hearing lullabies sung to me in my cradle. Oh, this line, yes. Right, that montage. I didn't know exactly what the actress was going to say, nor what it meant in the context of the film, but I knew precisely how she was going to say it. An alchemical kind of memorization.



Since last week I've had those lines bouncing around in my head. I can't recite the whole movie, but I could parrot a good 25% of the screenplay right now, if you wanted me to. The way people get songs in their heads, I get scenes in my head, from movies or shows I watched either at developmentally crucial moments or have watched repeatedly. Mannequin had been lost to me in that way until I saw it again, and part of me thinks it was a mistake to watch it as an adult, because it woke up all those brain cells that had been sleeping and/or allocated to more useful tasks. And now I can remember it. For better or worse, it's in my head again, imprinted like a fingernail in clay.

Perhaps it's for worse that I'm saying this about a disposable 80s comedy with questionable gender relations, impossible plot mechanics (he's the toast of Philadelphia for designing department store display windows?) and untenably over-the-top performances.* Yet there are worse movies I could have eaten up as a child. And the bright 80s colors and synthesizers, the simplicity of the plot, the positive ethical compass, the sheer harmlessness of the whole enterprise - these things make it a pretty good movie for kids, even if that wasn't the intent.

Watching the film again, though - I wanted to memorialize the weirdness of that experience. Because although it might've been fine for seven-year-old me, now I can see what a thoroughly dumb film it is - the padding, the flimsiness, the Born Sexy Yesterday problem. I cringed all the way through, even as bits of my brain flared and lit like distant fireworks.** Both happened at the same time: affection, communicated across time and space, along with deep, vermilion embarrassment.

Some years ago, when we still lived in Maryland, I talked my husband into taking a day trip with me to Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived during my elementary school years. I had an itch to see this place called the Hermitage, where I went a few times as a child, and which I remembered as a mysterious, enchanted glen of sun-dappled woods. Someone had long ago placed millstones among the trees, which had been grown over by grass and moss. I remembered old brick walls, restless quiet, the possibility that Narnia waited around the next bend. I couldn't bear my half-memories of the place any longer, so we drove there.

The Hermitage grounds are lovely, but smallish and well-kept, not wild and mysterious. The house (which was off-limits every time I went there, so I didn't care about it much) sits next to water - the Lafayette River - a detail I did not remember. The woods I had remembered made up a fairly small patch of ground, and the trees were not exactly sparse but were not thick enough to hide the house or the neighboring wetlands, to make you feel like you were at all distant from civilization.


My memory sparked and fired from time to time, but like returning to an elementary school, everything looked small. Minimal. Mundane. Certain aspects did not disappoint, like the millstones, but nothing about the bit of woods we walked in felt enchanted. Matt was kind and didn't say anything to the effect of "we drove seven hours round trip for this?", but I felt deflated.

What I'm trying to say about all this is how strange our brains are, that they can latch on to more or less random input early in life and never let go. That might mean that we should be a hell of a lot more careful about what we give kids early in life, what movies and shows they watch over and over, what places they go and fall in love with. Or it might not; there's an element of "who knows" attached to all this, because I know I saw movies and went places as a kid that I didn't retain as clearly, or at all. I don't think having Mannequin and the Hermitage in my brain has made me worse (or better) off in any particular way, nor do I think the selection of this movie, this place, says anything special or important about me, my taste, my parents' parenting, anything like that. One of the most brilliant set of parents I know, their four-year-old loves Trolls, the movie made from nothing more substantive than a line of plastic toys; I think it's because the movie has bright colors, not because his affection for the film indicates anything about his destiny. But I'll bet he's going to remember the turn and shape and sound of aspects of that film well into his adult life. For better or worse.

Mannequin, at least, was entertaining. Keep your expectations low if you elect to watch it; the leads have nice chemistry and Spader has to be seen to be believed, but that's about it. If you've never been to the Hermitage and you're near Hampton Roads, it might be a nice place to visit.

What I definitely don't recommend is trying to go back to where you've been, whatever that means to you. You can go home again, but you can't live memories the same way a second time. Even if you retain them with precision, like the actors reciting their lines permanently in my mind, like the millstones under my adult feet, they'll never be exactly the way they were.

---

*I mean, I don't know who was telling Spader to do what he did in this movie, but he behaved approximately as human as Ed Grimley.

**An unintentionally funny thing: the evil department store is named Illustra (which is an odd name for a department store, right?) and it's mostly pronounced by the actors like Olestra. I don't think Olestra existed then, so now it's pretty funny to hear them talking about margarine and meaning a department store.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Six (Truth and Consequences)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Ana├»s Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Part of me can't even figure out how to write this, the final post in this series. I've talked and written so much about Lifespan and COW (which is what Lidia calls The Chronology of Water - she even says it aloud like the animal, like moo-cow - so that's what I'll call it too) that I don't know where to start writing about them again. Both books changed my life. Crucially. Undeniably. No-going-back-ly.

But then, every book on this list has changed my life. Easily half of all the books I've read have changed my life to some degree. Changing your life is not really that hard, or that unusual. Every pebble in the riverbed changes the current a little, alters where the cold water lies and where you have to swim a little harder.

If not these books, perhaps some other books. If not them, a song or an album, a play, a film. Something would have come along to make my life different than it was before. That's how this goes, this life thing, this art thing.

But since we're here -

I read this review of The Lifespan of a Fact and decided I had to get hold of it. At the time I was writing genre fiction almost exclusively; in 2012 I wrote most of a novel, Highbinder, that I still love very much but that is many miles away from what I'm doing now. Still, even then I was obsessed with truth, and with the distances between and among truth, memory, story, and fact.

Lifespan looks like it's going to be a lot of trouble to read, because the layout of each page is one central rectangle of black text surrounded on all sides by smaller, footnoteish text colored either red or black. But it goes quickly. You develop a rhythm for reading the text and its associated notes, in whatever order you elect. You go from page to page in awe of the ideological clash taking place, even though it escalates gradually, even though it involves unpleasant dick-swinging, even though it leaves off on a note that makes you stare at the wall in existential terror.

As always, click to embiggen, because as always, Blogger makes it
impossible to make pictures the size I want them to be

Last semester we read Lifespan in my creative nonfiction class, and I ended up recounting part of the conversation we had in an essay, "Bright White American Smile."
What a thrill to study The Lifespan of a Fact in a classroom. The book had changed my life. I couldn’t wait to hear what younger minds made of it.

The result astounded me: they didn’t care about the facts. They sided with art. What difference did it make if D’Agata got every little thing right? He was telling a story.

But it’s not the truth, I argued, nearly apoplectic. The truth is sacred. It’s necessary. It’s water in the desert of the real.

Eh, they answered.
There was a lot more to it, but, y'know, that's why I wrote the essay. The book revolves around big questions, and questions that may seem small but are actually huge: the importance of rhythm in prose, the general point of fact-checking, the actual meaning of "nonfiction," and whether writers bear a moral responsibility to their readers. I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but searching for the answers is a big part of why I have developed and sustained a writing practice for the past five years. I don't think genre fiction could have kept my interest as I failed and failed and failed at writing during that time. If Highbinder had attracted a publisher, then maybe it could have, and my life would be different. But it didn't, and instead I read The Lifespan of a Fact, and so I am where I am.

Another reason I am where I am is COW, which I read just a few months before Lifespan, which was how I remembered it but which I'm still surprised to confirm. (Sidebar: in a single summer I read Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry, Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life, and Barry Hannah's Airships, which all display remarkable, unusual, fascinating story-making, and each of which is a master class in writing. Why they all came my way in just one summer I'll never know.)

Later, I sent copies of COW to four women I know. Three of them wrote me messages and emails that said WHAT IS HAPPENING I FEEL WEIRD MY LIFE IS CHANGING MY BODY EXISTS HALP. And I was like, I KNOW. COW is powerful. (The fourth woman didn't like it. Too much sex.) I've been giving it away to people ever since; I think I've bought at least twenty copies. I decided to keep a handful of them on my shelf, just in case.

What I wrote at the time:
Chronology is a book that has absolutely changed my life. In a week. I am waiting to write much about it until I read it again, which I hope to do next week. I want to read it every week. I want to write it on my skin, to chop it into dust and breathe it into my lungs. It feels like the only real book I've read since I was a little girl (aside from books that just broke my heart, like Feed); the word "book" seems inadequate to describe it. 
I never did write more about it, because I assimilated it so deeply that writing about it seemed unnecessary. And now, of course, I'm stuck writing about it, because of this series.

It's a book full of contradictions. For a memoir so subjectively about its author, it offers a remarkably objective, granular sense of the experience of life. It grapples with language as a limited set of parameters, but it applies language so flexibly that other writing feels stiff, toylike, minor. Most profoundly, it frees the writing of women from the methods and practices of men's writing. It's assembled the way a life is remembered, rather than the way a book is Supposed To Be Written; the grammar varies according to the mood the reader is meant to feel; the style ranges widely; metaphors roam like fenceless horses.

Still from the book trailer

COW affected me by virtue of its novelty, certainly. I had not read Cixous, so I didn't know there was another way to write than some version of the Harold Bloom way, nor did I know what could differentiate women's writing, trauma writing, body writing, from more traditional prose.

But the book also showed me that I am always going to be the center of my writing, and I get to choose what I do with that centrality. My mentor says - quoting someone, I think - that the most interesting thing about a piece of literature is the consciousness through which it is filtered. She's talking about voice, and her lesson is a little different from what COW demonstrates, but the underlying ideas are nearly identical. Even if I try to scrub out all traces of myself in order to write a story about a robot stealing organs to make himself human, I can't remove me. Not completely.

This seems obvious, because I write my ideas, using words inside my head, but how far I choose to lean in to myself as I write is the variable. And that little lean, from here to there, is an enormous possibility space. There's no way to divorce a writer completely from what she produces, I believe, but there's a big difference between every character in your novel having a little piece of you inside her and writing explicitly from, or of, the self. Jesse told me after reading my secret project - which is not biographical in any significant way - that he found it deeply personal, and I think that's because I wrote it out of my body, instead of allowing my body to be remote from the process. I could not have written it that way before COW came into my life.

What I've learned since I read COW is that the work is better, more intense, more interesting, when I embrace the me at the heart of each sentence. That may take the form of genuine memoir, or it may involve explaining the emotional history of my porcelain veneers during an essay about The Lifespan of a Fact and Singin' in the Rain.

It's not how the list turned out, but the better pair of books to talk about in tandem, if talking about the books that mattered to me, is Oblivion and COW. Those are my two favorite writers: Wallace and Yuknavitch. Between them, Wallace is the mind and Yuknavitch is the body. Wallace sometimes gets embodied, and Yuknavitch is a brilliant thinker, but they generally fall inside those lines for me.

Since discovering the place of each of these writers in my cosmology, the missing element that's been nagging at me is the heart. Who's the heart?

My secret desire, ambition, terror is that I'm the heart - that I'm the one who completes the trinity.

A romantic notion: the heart knows the truth. And, after all, the truth is what obsesses me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Novel-Writing / Blue-Footed Boobyness

In setting up the Casablanca novel, writing the early chapters, I've heaved a lot of existential sighs. It feels so tedious, having to tie the rigging and erect the masts for my model ship. As the New Yorker brought to my attention, 
in an interview with the Guardian last August, [Rachel] Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.”
That's a terrific article if you read the whole thing, and it expressed a feeling I'd started to have about writing short stories at the time I read it in 2015. Writing fiction had begun to seem even more farcical than reading fiction usually did. Inventing people and setting them off on journeys felt hollow. Like playing with paper dolls in scenarios unimportant and soon forgotten. It was part of why I began to sway toward nonfiction, metafiction, hybrid work. Not only am I not especially good at writing regular short stories, but I don't enjoy it. 

In the Casablanca novel, although I'm writing mainly about one character and her journey and her interior life, I have to put together other elements of character and plot in order to sustain that journey, as well as - critically - the reader's interest. Okay, so I've invented a teacher who's a member of the French Resistance, and a principal who colludes with the Nazis, and a wife who's left her husband over fascism, and little teenage friends who are uninterested in the war. But making them all hang together as a whole tapestry, making cause and effect happen in a dance of inevitable surprise - that is the stuff that, in my opinion, makes it a novel. And that stuff is annoying and difficult and not nearly as interesting in the course of its invention as I ever think it will be. 

Writing all the other stuff is the work, and writing about my main character is the fun. I wish I'd remembered that novel-writing works this way before I decided to undertake this one, but I didn't, and now I'm stuck.

I hoped I would have more to say about this situation, above - enough to make a decent-sized post - but I do not, alas. Except to say that I read the book that New Yorker article was about, Outline, and it was one of the dullest, least fulfilling books I've read in yonks. Since it was the first book of hers I've read, I don't know if I don't connect to Cusk, or if her transition away from fiction has made for an awkward book or two.

Anyway, that's not enough data for a full post, so here's a few bits and pieces.

--

I briefly expressed this here in May, so forgive me for repeating myself. Since I reviewed The Book of Joan - gratitude to Julie and Brian, always and always - I've been tentatively asking various publicists and presses for ARCs to review, because I like reviewing books and doing so might lift my profile some more. In reply, I keep hearing "sure, okay, what's your address?" and it's making me ask WHAT EVEN IS THIS FARCE WHEN AM I GOING TO GET MY LITTLE DUMB LIFE BACK PLEASE DON'T LET IT BE SOON.

(ARCs are advance reader copies, un-proofread versions of books that are printed a few months before the book is actually released to the public. They are sent out to book reviewers and to writers at some level of fame who are willing to say nice things about the book. They are sometimes called galleys.)

People who have been doing book reviews for a while might think it's silly for me to feel gratitude and awe at getting ARCs, because I've heard tell of the phase where ARCs take over your mailbox and become an annoyance. But as of now, I still feel excitement.

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I had another No Really I'm So Done with Facebook day last week, and then the next day there was a Carolyn Hax column I simply had to talk about and I got into an interesting conversation on her wall and agh, I was dragged in again. Honk if you relate.

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I'm applying for residencies and whatnot for next year, a process so very uninteresting that it's almost not worth the possible reward. It feels like a slow, weird, conceptual dance I'm doing. That is, it's not the energetic, buy-what-I'm-selling song-and-dance that a salesman has to do, because it's in print and it's related to art, not commerce. But it's still self-promotion and self-exposure. Like a super-crappy mating dance. Same steps over and over, full awkwardness on display, uncertainty flapping in the wind.


I'm also assembling essays for a collection to pitch. The hybrid film essays are not yet ready for a whole collection, so this one's different - odds and ends, really. Some of them come from this blog, some from elsewhere. It's a weird experience. Copying stuff from the blog into a Word doc, changing the font, reorienting aspects of the context - suddenly the words feel more official. Figuring out how it all goes together, and whether it does, is equally weird. It's me, I'm the consolidating factor. Is that enough?

All this is on deadline, which gives it a stress blanket I do not enjoy. At least it means the unpleasantness of these processes has an end point. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

You Did That

Last week, my diploma arrived. The one from CSUN. It looks like this.

I whited out my last name to preserve what little everyday-life privacy I have. The name I write under is no longer my legal name, and CSUN told me they could only put my legal name on the diploma. Which is a shame, because I write under my maiden name, and I wanted my writing degree to list that one. 

I posted it on Facebook, in what I hope is my final look-at-me-I'm-graduating post on Facebook. (Well, except for this one.) I said that I still didn't know how I felt about attaining this degree, and that there was a lot of baggage, but there's pride and the desire to show off in there - the one reasonable, the other ignoble.

People kept asking me this spring if I was excited, or if I felt good. "I don't know," I told them. Are you SO ready to be done? they asked. "I guess I could use a break, but I really like school," I answered. Are you going to miss it, then? "Yes, but I'm planning to stay involved next year," I said.

None of these conversations went well. I didn't know the answers they were looking for. I didn't know what kind of conversation I was meant to have with these kind people: were they asking a chitchat question, or were they truly asking how I felt? I felt weird, and that was pretty much the only sensation I was sure of, but I didn't think that answer was how the conversation was supposed to go.

When I finished my bachelor's degree and people asked me what my major was, I told them film studies and philosophy - interdisciplinary, not a double-major - and they almost always said "Wow, what are you going to do with THAT?" I took to replying "Live in a box, I think," because I found it an impossible question. And I sensed disdain at my impracticality (understandable, but still rude) in the question, so I made a joke that let them know I'd noticed.

After honors convocation, I put my medal on the coffee table and stared at it for a while. Matt told me he was proud of me, and that I deserved a medal, if, for no other reason, as a physical indicator of how hard I'd worked.

"You deserve that medal just as much as I do," I said.

"No," he laughed, in an oh-as-if way. "No, I don't. It was you. That's your hard work on the table. I didn't do anything."

"You supported me," I said, feebly. "You stood by me, and listened while I raved about theory. You studied with me! I wouldn't've memorized phonemes if not for you."

He leaned forward in his chair. "You did that," he said, gesturing to the medal, gazing steadily at me. "You did that. That was your work."

It was a very Good Will Hunting moment. I almost started crying.

Medal, distinction sash, honors rope, CSUN sash

Pride is hard for me. Because of the environment of my high school, I find arrogance the worst personality trait of all; I fear it, and guard against it, in myself. Multiple voices from the past and present, based on real people and events as well as made-up insecurities, whisper reasons why my MA is not a big deal, why I have no reason to be proud, why I should in fact hide away from the achievement represented by getting this diploma in the mail. Since the hubbub around graduation started ramping up - really since I started this whole thing in the first place, in 2013 - I've struggled not to listen to them.

It's just a Cal State. It's just an MA, not an MFA or a PhD. You'll never make anything of it. Why'd you get it if you didn't want to teach? What proof do you have that the time and expense did you any good? If you'd worked harder you would've won that award. If you'd slept less you could've done it faster, spent less money. Your husband resents you for the time and money you lost him on this stupid goose-chase. You'll never catch up to people with PhDs. You're not as smart as them. It's just an MA. It's just an MA. You have nothing to show for it. Who cares? 

Getting over that is hard. I could've written another twenty sentences of those mean whispers.

Though based in experience, and on real humans who have spoken to me, these statements are not based in fact. "Just a Cal State" gave me a more rigorous education than the fancy Seven Sisters college where I got my bachelor's degree. The proof I have is the acceptances I've gotten over the past year, the written work that's made it into the world. Matt has been proud and encouraging from day one. "Just an MA" has enriched my life beyond estimation since 2013.

It's still hard to believe fact over insecurity. I'm still haunted by what I didn't do. And there's deep, heavy family baggage related to this pursuit that I have carried with me all along.

It bubbled up in my mind some weeks ago that the reason I don't know what I feel about finishing the degree is the muddiness of the reasons why I decided to get the degree in the first place. My reasons were somewhat baggage-driven, but mostly entailed the vague notions of "writing better and knowing more." I do write better and I do know more, but the quantities remain unmeasurable. (Which is the whole deal with the humanities, really.) My classmates got the degree so they could teach, or so they could check off the box between BA and PhD, or so they could get more money at their jobs, or so they could return to the passions they held in their 20s and deferred through motherhood or career. Those are much more definite. My goals float and bob and skitter away when reached for.

But I am proud that I did this. I don't have a place to hang the degree, because Tom Servo hangs over my desk and the spot above the mantelpiece is taken, but for now I see it leaning against my desk every morning and every afternoon.

Like everything else I've done, or attained, it will find its place in my life. People will stop asking questions about it that I can't answer. I'll assimilate this time as "when I was in grad school", like the times of "when I was in paralegal school" and "when I worked as a copy editor" and "when I lived in London".

Eras come and go; experience is permanent. This was a good one.