Monday, May 14, 2018

In My Wildest Dreams

Over the weekend, my goal was to write three book reviews. I'm staring down a May 20 deadline for four separate reviews, one of which I've already filed, plus two soft deadlines for today (Monday). I really hate working close to deadline; I know it motivates some people, but it just makes me crazy, and I produce poor work. I wanted to get more than half of the five remaining reviews out of the way this weekend, rather than sweating next week. And I did: I wrote three reviews, meeting the soft deadlines and a second May 20 deadline, and I finished reading the third May 20 book. Which leaves me with six days to review that book and read and review the last one. Doable.

I was feeling good about blamming through these responsibilities--even though filing one review got me an assignment for another one, on a fairly short timeline--and I went into the living room to re-sort the book piles everywhere. There's a pile for no-deadline books, a pile for read-but-not-reviewed books, a pile for reviewed-and-waiting-for-edits books, and a few small piles of send-to-friends books. I neatened these, and an epiphany hit me like a train.

That first paragraph? With the six deadlines and the process of meeting them? That's my life now. It's what I do every day: read, review, pitch, write. I have a spreadsheet with all the ARCs I've requested, received, or been assigned, with slots for whether I've read it, pitched it, etc. When I file the review, I gray out the title, and when the review gets published, I delete the row and enter the book on the next sheet, where I have slots for social media promotion and informing the publisher and etc. This is how I stay sane, this spreadsheet, its tidiness keeping me from terror.

self-portrait with two left hands

The epiphany: this is the life I dreamed of when I was a little girl. Other kids dreamed of being astronauts or ballerinas, but I wanted to be a librarian. I wanted to be around books all day long, every day, forever. As an adult, I learned, to my enormous disappointment, that being a librarian is less about books than it is about customer service (thank you, Withdrawn). I decided to be a writer instead, making my life about books I create instead of books created by others.

At the moment, most of what I write about is books. When I look around my apartment, all I see is books. Yeah, it stresses me out and makes me sad that so many of them are going unread while I read assigned books I'm less excited about, but still: being surrounded by books, and thinking about books all day long, was my fantasy life as a child, and now it is my actual life.

(This life has come about through a series of unlikely and wholly unplanned events. I feel the need to point out and emphasize this, because more and more people are talking to me about my publications IRL and I'm flattered and pleased, but I don't know what to say to them. I feel like a hapless cheater: it just...happened.)

The point is, I haven't really looked around at my book-stuffed life with WhatDoesThisMean-O-Vision until yesterday. And I feel grateful, positively awash in gratitude. Yet I also feel overwhelmed. I don't want to stop writing about books, but I do want to slow down. A little insistent voice is telling me that this pace isn't sustainable. And of course I'm getting paid for less than half of what I'm writing. It's a better average than before, but I'd like to convert the work I'm doing with books into work that will pay well, and that will lead somewhere.

Because over the weekend, I got news that a meaningful boost I hoped I'd get as a reviewer is not coming to me. That boost had a trajectory that made sense, that looked like a natural next step. But no. At least for the next year, that boost isn't mine. So I'm floundering a little bit on my trajectory, unsure whether I'm actually sitting in a catapult or just a swingset, swooping back and forth in the same non-progressive arcs over the sand.

more positive self-portrait, except for the cat, because I'm allergic
(books and cats always seem to go together in culture, but I REMAIN ALLERGIC)

Out in the world:

I wrote about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama for the Big Smoke. I wrote this, revised it a few times, and then held on to it, trying to sort out whether it wouldn't be better if I shut up and let non-white voices say everything possible about this museum. I also didn't really want to call out my family; there's complexity there. I talked it over with a few friends and my editor, and ultimately it went forward, and I've gotten some compliments on it (from white people, admittedly). No one has showed up at my literal or digital door to punch me and call me a racist, so I guess that means it wasn't a terrible move to publish it.

I reviewed a pile of interesting books recently.
  • So Lucky, Nicola Griffith, for The Arts Fuse. I've never read a book this streamlined, this angry--a book that feels like a pistol shot between the eyes, no more, no less. Nevertheless, it's not white-heat writing; it's multilayered and meticulous. Get into it. Particularly if you have chronic illness, or have a loved one with same. 
  • Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Deer Woman, an anthology, for ANMLY. I loved both of these books, but I particularly loved Trail of Lightning. It was so well-assembled, so full of heart and wit, and I fell stupidly in love with the main character. She reminded me of my own Berra Thorntree, so much so that I queried Roanhorse's agent. Didn't even get a request for a partial. Oh, well. 
  • Belly Up, Rita Bullwinkel, for LARB. I greatly admired this book but didn't like it. (You might; I suspect it's going to be acclaimed elsewhere.) I will watch this writer with eagerness and interest, in the hope that I can write her an unalloyed positive review someday. 
  • Stormwarning, Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, for the Women's Review of Books. This is actually a profile more than a review, and I am owed approximately half of the credit for the final product. My editor was amazing. The book is amazing, too (say it with me: feminist Icelandic poetry); buy it here. Alas, this profile only appears in the magazine, but you can buy a PDF of the magazine at this link

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Framed Narnia Map

In March, I submitted a short piece to a contest, the substance of which was writing about a precious possession. I didn't win, so here's the piece.  :)


Multiple maps of Narnia exist. The best one was drawn by Pauline Baynes in 1972, sixteen years after the final Chronicle was published. Some years later, Scholastic produced poster-sized versions of Baynes's map as promotions. I found one on eBay, creased down the middle for all time due to wonky, cheap lamination that also keeps the poster from lying flat. I paid something absurd for it, $100 or $150 for a poster that was once a free book advertisement. After the poster arrived, I spent a few hundred dollars more to have it framed in spiral-decorated hardwood with fancy UV-protection glass. It has hung on my wall ever since.

When we moved apartments, I asked my husband to put the framed Narnia map in his car and transport it himself instead of allowing the movers to pack it. When I assembled an earthquake plan, I thought about what I would save, and the framed Narnia map was at the top of the list. When fires raged near my home in late 2017, I thought of the things I would be sad to sift through ashes and see destroyed, and of all I own, the framed Narnia map made me the saddest.

I do this, I feel this way, because I consider the framed Narnia map irreplaceable. Irreplaceable: cannot be re-bought, re-made, re-owned: this is the only one I have access to, probably ever. I treasure it not just for this reason, but because I treasure Narnia, the place depicted in the map that lies under that expensive glass. It's the place where I felt like home, as a child, when my literal home shifted so often. Ten different bedrooms by high school, but Narnia was inside all of them--the blue-carpeted bedroom, the beige-carpeted bedroom, the black-carpeted bedroom. The paneled walls and the painted ones. Only Narnia never changed.

And now Narnia lives on my wall, a cheap, irreplaceable poster depicting all the places I believe in more fundamentally than heaven. The Lone Islands. Cair Paravel. Archenland. The books are troubling in the 21st century, the racism and the colonialism and the apologia. I do not care. Narnia is a home more precious to me than the four walls and roof that meet my hierarchy of needs. Pauline Baynes has drawn the map of my heart.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Mule Philosophy

It's May! It's May! No more April! The stress of April is over! *ssssnnnniiffff* Ahhh, fresh clean May stress. Like warm laundry. Or pollen. *sneezes*

The pile of books for reading/reviewing continues to menace me. It's a good pile, with splendid talent and great variation in it. It's just real, real tall.

I finished an emotionally difficult essay the other week. It was one of my tripartite essays, like "The Girl on the Bike," and this one dealt with my father and Apocalypse Now. I sent it to my mentor and she showed me spots where I could expand it, and I kinda said nah, and she said, well, I'm just looking for stuff to critique about it because it seems finished. So I sent it out. I've had this essay on my back for a really long time; the idea's been around for at least two years, and I started the draft in mid-2017, but the emotional prod has been there since high school. Really, really glad to have it out of my cells.

As for what's next, well. I experienced a minor implosion about two weeks ago trying to sort out what's going on with my potential projects. Thank God my friend Lucas (who's going to win all the poetry prizes one day; get in on him now) agreed to listen to me while I raved for a while about what was in my head. He helped me sort through the ideas and figure out a strategy for knocking them down. Part of that strategy was making a list of everything on my plate, and when I recited it to a couple of friends later they just stood there with their mouths open. More than a dozen essays of varying complexity; more than a dozen book reviews. Two books in progress; four books shopping.

Having new ideas is not the problem. Having the time to write and read is no longer the problem. Having the focus and wherewithal to do justice to the ideas on paper is the problem.

Also, I learned that it's not just that I'm a delicate, whiny flower when it comes to writing every day. If I write every day (if it's on different projects, not a binge on one project), the quality goes down sharply by the middle of the second week. I banged out a bunch of reviews and a few short essays in mid-April to meet some deadlines, but on one essay I had to break for two and a half days before I could write it well. My sentences turned to mush. So it's not just preference. People who insist that daily pages are the only way to write are flat wrong. 

The only thing that's working for me right now is imagining myself a mule: plod, plod, plod, one hoof at a time. This book in the morning, that review in the afternoon. This research in the morning, those pitches in the afternoon. Don't think about next week, just think about the next hoof on the ground. I am a natural long-term planner, but in grad school I learned how to live one day at a time, one item on the to-do list at a time, one bite of whale at a time, in order not to lose my damn mind from the stress of everything I had to do by the end of the semester. It was a major adjustment. And one of the best lessons of my adult life, so far.

At this time, though, the inundation of review work and the occasional picked-up pitch for normal nonfiction essays means that the lyric essays and the novel are falling by the wayside. Immediate deadlines aren't abating at all; in fact, they're increasing. Which is bad. The big drawback of the mule philosophy: long-term projects wither.

I think this will resolve as I get further away from my day job, and as my reviewing settles down and stops depending so heavily on pitching. (The latter, for the record, works like this: the more I land pitches, the more editors want to work with me again, which means that I have to work less hard to land the next book pitch--or I just get books assigned to me. Researching and pitching is enough work that taking it out of the equation lessens my workload greatly.) I realized not long ago that April was a month of recovery for me--from the unfortunate way the day job ended, from the major transition I coordinated at the day job before I left (which caused me such stress that I dreamed about work constantly), from the continued forcing of my square self into the round hole of an office job for three and a half years.

It sounds ridiculous that I'd have to recover from a perfectly normal job that I once loved, but once I applied the idea of recovery, a bunch of my behavior and limitations made sense, so I can't really deny it. Toward the end of April I started being able to spend most of the day working instead of about half of it resting, and I started being able to do normal chores without world-shaking dread. It hasn't been that way since last fall. I don't feel all the way healed, but I feel better.

It helps that I am happy every day. 

Out in the world: 

I reviewed Allison Coffelt's tiny book about Haiti, Maps Are Lines We Draw, for Brevity. It was terrific. I always love working with Brevity, too.

I couldn't make this article work in a longer form for any publications I had in mind, so I put it on Medium. It's about a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it's also really deep, about life and stuff like that.

I'm in this issue of Beacon Quarterly, but I don't know what my contribution looks like because I haven't gotten a copy yet.

I interviewed Neil Snowdon, who is totally wonderful, for Books I Hate. He gave it an enormous amount of time and thought; his insights there about horror are beyond the beyond.

After I read Ty Burr's fantastic book about the history of celebrity, Gods Like Us, I wrote a sort of review/endorsement of it essentially for fun, because I wanted the topic of his book (star studies) to be more widely known. This was years ago. It was too formal to post here and too short/casual to turn into something scholarly. I kind of desultorily looked for a place for it, and this week, it found a home: PopMatters. Burr himself retweeted it, generously.

Oh, that reminds me: I'm on Twitter now. I'd love for you to follow me, but just so you know, for now I'm using it for promotion rather than as a personal outlet. The latter is what Facebook is for. 

Friday, April 20, 2018

From Me to You: Hard Truths

In the same week, I gave a presentation at CSUN about how to submit your work, and I got into a conversation about what to expect when you're submitting your work. Both of these situations made me realize that I've left something important out of the From Me to You series: hard truths. That is, the parts of the writing life that just suck and are painful to internalize, and that you can either learn about on your own over many annoying years, or that you can listen to crusty old me about today.

Elmore Leonard 

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Never To-Done

First: sorry for the short notice: if you are in or around Cal State Northridge on Saturday, come see me give a presentation about a conceptual novel I assembled and am trying to place. I'm on at 12:10 in the Tujunga Room. More details here.

Regularly scheduled programming:

As I continue to publish things, by the grace of accepting editors, I pile up more and more behind-the-scenes stories. In the past month, I wrote a review while whacked and thinned out on Sudafed; I wrote a review where it got so ugly between me and the editor that I don't know if it'll ever see print, even though I was commissioned to write it; and I pitched an unwritten review on April 9 at 6 PM and sent back final changes on April 11 at 9 AM. (I'd worked with him before, but still.) I feel like these tales are interesting and worthwhile to writers who are new to their endeavors, but I doubt they're interesting to experienced writers, and I can't really tell them indiscriminately without wrecking editorial relationships or making authors mad. What author would want to know that I reviewed them on Sudafed?

There's other stuff I have to say, too. I'm mentally assembling a From Me to You column about hard truths. It will not be as much fun as the above stories, but, well. That's the point of hard truths.

For the past week I've been trying to catch up on my work enough to take it easy for a few days. I wrote three reviews in three days, and then spent most of a day finishing the draft of a very difficult hybrid essay I've been working on since last fall. I also wrote a short factish essay that has a deadline in, like, June, but I wanted to get it off my plate, and an even shorter essay that I thought would be something, but isn't, and will likely end up on Medium sometime soon.

bangin' out those to-dos

By the end of all that I wasn't sure whether I even knew how to string a clause together. Switching from one register to another was exhausting. I don't know how you "daily pages" people do it; I am a binge personality through and through.

But I did catch up pretty okay. I've got two books to read and review plus four more to review that are time-sensitive, but almost everything else is June or later. It'll be nice to read a little more slowly.

(I kept editing that to add more of the books I'd forgotten that were due for May. There's actually another to read and review that comes out in May, but I'm feeling doubtful that pitch will get picked up, so I'm not rushing to read it. The to-do list is never to-done.)

Out in the world:

Oh I forgot to tell you I WAS IN THE MFING GUARDIAN. This one's got some behind-the-scenes to it, too, but the result is what matters. I reviewed Leni Zumas's Red Clocks in brief, and it was half persistence and half luck that made it happen. Truly.

I wrote a piece of criticism that is partly a review of Carl Frode Tiller's wonderful Encircling trilogy and partly a meditation on long books generally. This one mattered a lot to me, particularly because I placed it in LARB, which I thought I'd have to wait a lot longer to write for. It's a little...thick, but I'm proud of it. I wrote like hell to make it happen.

Fairly awkwardly: an erotica story I wrote long ago was published in a Portland local magazine, Exotic. Here are links to page one and page two (it's a two-page story); to see it in context, click here for a PDF of the entire issue, but be warned: it is 75% advertisements with full nudity. Like my story, it's not quite porn, but I think it's close enough for a court of law. The editor did some edits without my permission, including condensing two words into the dreaded "Alright". grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

For TRUE, I reviewed Jessica Friedmann's Things That Helpeda book so exquisite it kept popping my jaw open when I read it. Stunning writing.

I reviewed Tyler Wetherall's memoir No Way Home for Arts Fuse. It didn't blow my mind, but I liked it. Cracking story and rich emotional journey.

Finally, I wrote an opinion piece about Melania Trump for The Big Smoke. I have an insane level of fear about this piece being in the world, the worst of which was realized when a friend of a friend called it entitled white feminist fragility. Naturally, I don't think it's those things, but I comprehend that I'm calling for neutrality on a figure whom many people could never see as neutral. That's where I'm at, and I can't confer my privilege to everyone.

Now to get back to reading. Agh.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

LA Astronomy

This morning I went for a hike. I can officially call it a hike, not a walk; I had my hiking shoes on and I went up high. I saw quail (which toddle hilariously) and places where water used to be. I smelled sweet tangy pine brush and wild sage and the homey-to-me odor of horseshit. I heard those birds that sound like their batteries are running out and an unidentified whining machine that, although I hiked to get away from it, helped lead me home when I took the wrong path.

I'm reading a book that I kind of threw up my hands and decided to read. My stack for reviewing is really high, but I've been reading nothing but books for review for at least six weeks and I am tired of taking notes. So two days ago I picked up one that I've been wanting to read since last spring and knew would go fast: Excavation, by Wendy C. Ortiz. It's harrowing, because of its subject matter, but it's also wonderful.

One of the most interesting things for me about this book is that it takes place largely in the San Fernando Valley, which is where I live. I adore the valley, but I understand well why people don't set books there. It's kind of like setting a sci-fi book on Io instead of Jupiter. Jupiter looms, huge and fascinating and irresistible. Io is where people who like peace and quiet, people who don't like to be watched, would want to live, but Jupiter is where the exciting, worth-reading-about people live. Plus, the valley has changed so significantly in such a short time; the development from unpopulated orange groves to dense suburb has taken less than a generation. I think it'd be hard to set a book here unless you grew up here. You'd be constantly explaining what stage the valley was in at the time.

It was hazy this morning, which is a real weather condition here rather than a temporary description. I hiked higher than I ever have in this park, went further on the trail than I thought I could without breakfast, and took some panoramic pictures and sent them to Matt. Thankfully, I did not get Creed's "Higher" in my head. Until just now.

On the way back I saw Lassen Street, spearing out from the park into the sprawl. It shone under the early sun. Because of the haze, the street looked like it went on forever, the horizon faded to white like a matte painting. (Such comparisons are inevitable in the suburb orbiting stormy Jupiter.)

does not do justice to the scene, but at least offers an idea of what I'm talking about

I thought of Wendy's book, thought of her writing about Van Nuys, the 101, Woodman, Lankershim. "He sighed, turned left on Ventura, and we headed towards the west Valley, which always felt far from home." She is writing about 1987, when there still would have been orange groves here. I think. My apartment was built sometime in the 80s - I can tell by the tile counters in the kitchen - but I think this development would've been isolated, a new opportunity for daring investors.

Wendy still lives in LA, but she lives in Jupiter, not Io. I don't blame her. I'm happier here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018


Years ago, my mother hinted to me that I would hit a problem with which I've recently been struggling. She told me that blogging seemed to her like a bad idea, because if she were to do it, she would be giving away her work. She believes (and has evidence) that she deserves to be paid for that work, so doing it for free seemed unwise. And it's not like she'd be blogging about something and selling something else; the work she'd do to blog is the exact same work she does for pay.

I didn't disagree with my mother's assessment. I simply saw the issue differently. Blogging is, or was at the time, a different kind of effort for me than the writing for which I think I deserve payment. It's often a release valve for the stresses or unused ideas generated by the other kind of writing.

Our conversation poked at essentially the same problem over which journalists and other kinds of writers have been tussling for years, as the internet drops our compensation to HILARIOUS new lows. Do I want to be paid $25 for a piece of writing for which I would have been paid $300 twenty years ago? What if I reach a whole lot more readers? What if writing the piece is significantly easier because I can do research from my desk? What if they can find another, less experienced writer to do work that is 95% as good for $25, or for free? And so forth.

The way I see it, we are in a difficult transitional period for media generally and written media particularly. In the future, there'll be a model that resembles the journalism models of the 20th century hardly at all, but it will be much less cutthroat and inequitable than what we have now. I haven't the foggiest idea what it will look like. At present, we're stuck with this crap, where I work for eight hours reading/writing/revising and get $25, or nothing. It's bad, and it may not change in my lifetime. But that is how transitions work. Someone paid $4,000 for an unbearably shitty cell phone in 1985. A lot of someones, in fact.

Anyway. As avenues continue to open to my writing, I begin to wonder how I can maximize the time I spend on the written word. When I had something to say about a book in 2016, I said it here. Now, I will pitch a review of that book somewhere, and eventually it'll land. If I want to write about the five best writing craft books I know that no one ever seems to mention in my writers' groups, I won't put that information here anymore. I'll try and pitch it to a writing-related website. Preferably one that pays. (I am getting friendly & encouraging brush-offs from big-name online magazines, now, instead of nothing. Next step: rocket car.)

All this means that the number of topics I can only pontificate about here, in this space, is shrinking. Suddenly, it seems like any of my thoughts can be expanded and pitched anywhere. (Why not? People write incredibly silly things for money online. My writers' groups tell me that.) What I'm trying to sort out is how to keep this space vital to you and useful to me while also writing my thoughts for profit in other places.

I had a slight shock not long ago, when an editor who was looking over my clips to determine whether I could write a book review for her brought up a post I'd written, one where I mentioned that a book I was reading for review had become a slog. She did not want to read a pitch for that book. (Who would?) So that means I need to be more careful about how I write about my work as a writer here, and that kind of ties my hands. Tongue. Fingers. Whatever.

Is there no pleasure in blogging anymore? Of course there is. I love this space. I love rereading it, and I love directing people to it. I don't always love writing it, because I'm a bit more puzzled a lot more often about what to put here. I have a newsletter for self-promotion; this space is for self-exploration. If I get to do self-exploration elsewhere, what do I do here?

Speaking of which...Out in the world:

A short piece of mine, partially reviewing a book called Dictionary Stories, is set to appear in April's (paper) issue of Kolaj. To my surprise and delight, the editor excerpted my review on their page announcing the issue. (He also sent me absolutely no edits at all, which is a first for a book review.)

I reviewed The Natashas for the Masters Review. I really, really loved this book, and it was really, really weird.

I reviewed Tomb Song for Cleaver. This one I didn't like, but I had to make sure its good points were fully explored, and Cleaver encouraged me on the latter, so: the result.

I reviewed Animals Eat Each Other for 3:AM. I would never have had work appear in this magazine if not for reviewing a book like this, so I'm pretty happy it came along. I think the book and the mag go together quite well; it's nice when I have a sense that I'm bringing a book to the right audience.

March's Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) subject is writer and witch Ariel Gore.

See you next time! With something!