Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Catching Up on Visibility

A whole pile of good things happened to me in the late fall, and my own chickenheadedness prevented me from putting news of them here. I have a few weeks of quiet before my final semester of grad school starts, so I'm catching up with all kinds of things, this blog among them.

In late November I went to Portland for a writing workshop. The trip was an unqualified success, both personally and professionally. (Except that I unintentionally caused a really bad meltdown on the part of my friend's toddler.) The Saturday I was there, I participated in a reading series called Burnt Tongue, and here is video of me doing so. I forgot to bring any makeup to Portland, so I did this reading without eyeliner or mascara. You have been warned.

Here's the full Burnt Tongue reading (it's long, with many wonderful, wonderful people and their work).

The piece I read is a pared-down version of a feminist manifesto I wrote after years of telling myself I couldn't and shouldn't. I wanted to revise/build on Hélène Cixous; primarily I wanted to point out that men and women live in their bodies differently, which I believe to be true. I could think of all kinds of reasons why not to write this, but they seem dumb to go into now, after the reception my reading got. Four people clutched me and said YES on the way back to my seat, and all the other friends who have read it have praised it. I wrote it in mid-November, finally, after a series of mildly sexist encounters and the comments of a woman who was totally ensconced in the patriarchy and couldn't see it. I wrote it (not only, but with her in mind as the inciting incident) to explain to her what she couldn't see. Mostly, I couldn't let my thoughts go unclarified anymore. I'm not finished with the manifesto, but I have big plans for it.

It was incredibly kind of the people who run Burnt Tongue to let me do this reading, and I'm grateful. The material was virtually brand-new and it was important to me to put it in the world. As always, I love to read my work, but I felt a bit funny doing so on ground that was so unfamiliar to me - not my town, not my writing community, etc. I think, I hope, I added to the event.

A few weeks later, I posted a picture on Facebook of the back of a Skinny Cow truck.

In the ensuing comment thread, my friends pretended to be the marketing department of Skinny Cow, and made up extremely funny dialogue about why/how they put this monstrosity together. A pair of fairy godmothers later, the conversation was transformed into a column for Funny Women at the Rumpus. The whole thing happened very quickly, and I couldn't be more surprised and proud that I instigated it.

There's another bit of news that hasn't come to fruition yet, so I can't tell you, but I am losing-my-mind excited about it. Check back in February.

And, at the start of December and the end of the semester, I wrote a 20-page scholarly paper comparing concepts of the Jedi Path to G.W.F. Hegel and Walt Whitman. The process of writing this paper was not something I would ever repeat or recommend, but I did get it finished and I did get a good grade on it. If you are a Star Wars nerd and you want to read it, please let me know, because I uploaded it to my website and a few other nerds have already read and enjoyed it.

It's a surprise to me that my last post, about Columbine, went over so well. I think about Columbine so much, but I believed that made me weird, and surely no one wanted to hear my opinions on it, because I basically have opinions about everything and only Matt wants to hear them all and why should this be any different? But I got a lot more feedback on Facebook than I usually get for these posts, and a lot more site hits. Don't know what to do with that information, but now I have it.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Meditation on Truth and Columbine

For a few weeks now I've been listening to the audiobook of Sue Klebold's A Mother's Reckoning. Her son was Dylan Klebold, one of the pair of shooters at Columbine High School in April of 1999. The book is an attempt to shed light on Dylan's life, death, and choices.

It is harrowing.

Dylan was born in September of 1981, thirty-two days before I was. When he was a senior at Columbine, I was a senior at my own high school. As I've grown up, and Dylan has remained permanently seventeen, I've continued to prick up my ears at mentions of what he and Eric Harris did that day. I read Dave Cullen's meticulous journalistic study of the shooting, Columbine, twice in a row, some sections over and over. The book provides a useful little chapter that situates psychopathy better than anything else I've ever read, but that isn't the only reason. Columbine brings me vividly back to the experience of being a senior in high school in 1998-99 - what it was like to be that specific age in that specific year. When Cullen writes about American teenagers in 1999, he's talking about my peers. Eric and Dylan are hundreds of miles from where I was, both geographically and emotionally, but I recognize their area code. That experience, reading about these monstrous peers of mine, is frightening, familiar, discomfiting; it's a feeling that's not quite pleasant, but that I can't seem to quit wanting to be inside of.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Resolute, 2016 Edition

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Don't get dead. Success. I really like this resolution. I like living my life by it. It does good things for me.

2. Throw things away. Fail. As I write this I'm looking at piles of boxes I still haven't unpacked after moving in September. They're all things I saved in our storage space from our life before a one-bedroom apartment. There's a lot in here I could throw away, and I haven't. I feel pretty well-balanced about this problem in general, but when I look around I know there's more I could do.

3. Spending and saving are both okay, but balancing them is even better. Faaaaaail so bad. I like buying things and I bought way too many things this year, thanks in no small part to discovering Small Press Distribution.

4. Get off the internet. Fail. I wish I'd remembered this better.

5. Explore the middle. Big success, and it helped define my year. I got better at seeing the space in between black and white in myself and in others. I learned a lot about that space, what's valuable about it.

6. Try writing every day. (Key word: try.) Fail, but honestly, the failure was more useful than the success would have been. I tried writing every day for a couple of months, and it truly did not work for me. What I produced was mediocre. I started looking at it like a chore. So I learned that I am not the writing-every-day type, and this was my first real college try at doing it, so now I'm able to say, to people who insist that this is the only way writing gets done, no, it isn't. Without feeling a rush of shame that I haven't really attempted it.

7. Write it down. Big success. I'm always carrying a notebook from here on out. It was useful in a hundred ways I didn't expect, and excellent work came out of the notes I jotted down.

8. A three-tiered goal resolution.

     First level: share some of the Ceremonials project either with my mentor professor or with a workshop class. I shared it with a different professor than I had in mind, and I shared it with different people than I had in mind, but I'd call this an altered success.
     Second level: take writing (or perhaps yoga) workshops all four seasons. Let's see: I took one in the spring, one in September, one in late November. I didn't take one during the summer. C+.
     Hardest level: teach a writing workshop. Success! So overall, this resolution is in the plus column.

Since mid-September, I have been behind. I haven't done things on deadline in any way. I've started things later than I should, and ended them much later. I've been sending birthday cards a week or a month late (but I have sent them, usually), I've been leaving the laundry for another week, I've been letting this or that lapse for just another couple of days. This has been true at work, school, and home. This resolution post is a perfect example; usually, after revisiting it throughout the year to see how I'm doing at my goals, I work on this post for the last couple of weeks of December, honing it, considering what I want for the next year, before setting it to post at 6 AM on January 1st. This one, I'm writing it mid-morning on New Year's Day.

I haven't given my resolutions much thought. My life has become so scattered, so much about choosing which thing is most urgent and leaving behind all the stuff that can wait, until it's a faint shape in the distant past, that I haven't been able to consider what's ahead in any but the most practical ways.

I'm sad about this. I don't want to be one of those busy-busy-busy people. This happened because too much demanded my attention at once in September and I just...never caught up. I hoped to do some genuine catching up over the days between Christmas and New Year's, but I caught an ugly cold and spent that time dozing and coughing and reading instead. Maybe throughout January, before school starts, or...maybe in May, after school's done. I hate to think it could take that long to feel settled again.

So, with that in mind, here's the best I can do on resolutions.

1. Stay calm. Nothing good happens when I get wound up and panicky. A lot of people I know are "staying angry" about the politics of the year ahead, but that brings out the worst in me, not the best.

2. Get off Facebook. No, really, I mean it. I think it's crossed over into doing me more harm than good, and it so often makes me deeply sad, and yes I miss a lot when I don't go on there but once or twice a day will do, not constant awareness. It's hampering me from keeping my own counsel and from saving my best thoughts for my work.

3. Stay a healthy distance from smug. Smug has done no one any good in 2016. I want nothing to do with it in 2017.

4. Go toward the crazy, weird, awesome, instinctual. I tried doing this a few times this year: when I included a personal story in my introduction to Mulholland Drive, when I wrote a serious academic paper about Star Wars, when I decided to go on and pen a feminist manifesto even though I didn't feel like I'd read enough. Every time I met with support and success. I think I'm ready to shake off convention and do it my way - I think I've learned enough and lived enough not to make a muff of it - and now I just need to close up the fear.

Four is a lot fewer than I usually have, but former resolutions have continued to serve me well: don't get dead, cut back on complaint, stop rereading yourself, listen instead of talking. Also, it's mid-morning on New Year's Day and I have a cold and this post has got to go in the can, so this is what I've got. 

No matter how you lived in 2016, I'm willing to bet you're ready for 2017, so seize it. Paint it red. Make it your own. I'll be on the couch, dozing and reading poetry until I'm better. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Twos and Twos and Twos

I try so hard to be publicly apolitical. Because of my family, the long and bumpy journey I've had toward the values I hold now, the huge variation in how other people's values are formed, the many places and socioeconomic circumstances I've lived in and the different kinds of people I've known. I'm a strident feminist, but I'm not a strident liberal or a strident conservative, and I never have been, and I have no interest in it. I'm too invested in how other people see the world for that.

I put this on Facebook last night at 10:40, after it looked like Hillary wasn't going to win Pennsylvania. A friend asked me to put it in a shareable form. I hope it brings you comfort.


Listen. Shh, shh. I know. Listen, my love.

That sound is the crack of a mighty heart. A nation that does not know itself: an intelligentsia too hypnotized by the lightshow inside its own skull to know what lies beyond, in the great outdoors; a proletariat too lost and desperate to know anything but its own wailing - that things used to be different.

Things used to be better.

Things used to be united.

No. Never true.

We are born by dividing ourselves, infinitely, cell by cell into zygote and fetus and infant. We come to be in twos and twos.

We do not unite by agreeing with each other, or by fooling ourselves that we agree with each other by listening to echoes. That is Narcissus starving by the pool. We unite by hearing each other, reaching out to each other. We hold hands across the void. We speak and listen and that way, we walk on. We die alone, but we walk together, always. Why, tonight, do we choose to weep and walk alone?

Any mother of more than one child does not care who started it. She wants to see her children embrace, not claw at each other for victory.

These words might taste bitter to you now. But how did we get here? We divided, we strutted, we cliqued up. The people who have left Westboro have left because of patient talkers on the other side of the aisle, not because they were ignored or shouted at.

This is an ache you are hearing. It is a howl from the heart of this terrible, wonderful place. It is a demand for a hearing. Why such insistence? Did you ever wonder? What chamber has echoed to them, and to me, that we are all so ashen at the proof of this howl?

The willfully deaf cannot empathize even with shouters.

Listen. Shh. Listen.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Books! Books! and Additional Books!

This evening I did a little book-shifting in an attempt to force this apartment to make sense. (Yes, it's over a month since we moved in and no, I haven't finished emptying boxes and organizing and tidying. That's just how it is.) On the shelves in the second bedroom, the books pile two-deep and sideways, and yet there are empty shelves in the living room. So I moved all my Marilyn books and most of my film books to the shelf next to the TV (get it? *finger-gun click*). And now the shelves in the bedroom groan a little less.

Click to embiggen if you're nosy like me. The Marilyn books are mostly in shadow, which is not terribly helpful for the purposes of this anecdote, but getting a decent picture would mean moving the lamp, and eh all over that.

At first I couldn't find the smaller Marilyn books, the paperbacks, and as I was scanning the shelves in the second bedroom, awareness of all of the books on the shelves that I've read - most of them - flooded in, overwhelming me. The plots of them, or the stories, or the arguments, or the characters. And memories of where I got them all: which ones were gifts, which ones were finds on used bookstore shelves, which ones I stupidly bought full-price in hardback because I was just that obsessed with Sookie Stackhouse. I read that and that and that. Oh, and that. Oh, man, Matheson was such a better writer than I imagined he could be. Ooh, I was in no way ready for radical feminism when I bought that Sadie Plant book.

Pictured: A shelf that makes no sense yet, because I haven't organized the bookshelves throughout the apartment like I organized the one above, and no, that's not driving me crazy at all. But this was one of the shelves in view during my little epiphany. 

This sensation - an awareness of the sheer wealth inside those covers and hence inside my head - ran counter to what I usually think and feel when I look at a shelf of books. Namely: the nag of my own mortality. The intolerable truth that I will not be able to read them all; that I will not live long enough for that; that no human lifespan is that long. But seeing what I've already consumed, appreciating the heft of it, knocked me back a little. Maybe I haven't read all I want to, but I have read many, many books. And perhaps, for just a moment, I can be satisfied.

I've read all of these, except for the big gray book, which is The Best American Short Stories of the Century, which is really more of a reference book. And it elevated my monitor very nicely for a while there. 

Books have seen me through so many years. The books in the bedroom, in particular, but books in general. I don't know how people pass through a life without reading passionately and addictively. I honestly do not know.

The To Be Read shelf. I arranged a bookcase near the kitchen largely for this purpose. 
And finally, an acquisition at the Iliad today. I'm not sure I have a sincere intention of reading this, but I couldn't resist.
Could you? 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

35 Bullet Points for a Fulfilling Life

Today I am 35 years old. In celebration, I'm going to Catalina and going without my cell phone or the internet for the day.

I also assembled a list of 35 things I've learned / ways of life that I recommend investing in. At first I thought it would be hard to come up with 35 of them, but in fact it was not. I actually came up with 36. I hope you find them useful, whether you're older, younger, wiser, or more naive than I am. And I hope you have a wonderful next trip around the sun. I'm planning to enjoy mine, because most of it will not be in 2016, which for so many has been hilariously bad.

FOREMOST: Life is choices, my dear. Quoted directly from Ann Landers's daughter Margo. This applies to just about every situation. You always have a choice, as a human being, even if both sides of it are bad (i.e. die or give in to the Emperor). You are responsible for what you choose. I think of this approximately eighty times per day. Everything else is secondary, which is why there are 35 additional lessons, because a) I cheated and b) I couldn't bear to make this lesson just one of 35.

The rest are in no particular order. Here's something to listen to while you read:

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Real Question: Is Workshop Always Stupid?

Yesterday I had the good fortune to need this article as a reference to a friend who was asking my opinion of MFA programs. Give that article a read if you haven't read it, or even if you haven't read it in a while. I'll wait.

Back? Okay. I love that article. Four years later, I still think of it a few times a month. For a variety of reasons.

1) What the writer reveals about herself. At the time the article was new, the Observer blog said more or less what I have to say about what the writer reveals about herself in the course of the article. But it was said much more unkindly than I would have said it. Some of what the writer revealed was deliberate, but a whole lot of it was not. In brief: you're not over it, girlfriend.

Pictured: Joshua Ferris with workshoppee

2) The nature of the MFA. Evidently, the MFA is not just two years of protected time and space for writing. It's also a hotbed of drinking and sex and gossip and petty power struggles. Yulgh. There are other ways to do it, of course - namely, the way Ferris evidently did it.

...he was a man obsessed. While the rest of us were screwing around with our crushes and debating whether or not to use our middle initial when published, he was writing. I mean really writing, all the time, sometimes a rumored fourteen hours a day.
The connection between Ferris staying away from happy hours and Ferris landing a huge book deal with his first novel seems to have been lost on the writer. She notes that "[h]e cared more about his own writing than he did about me - than any of us, really - and wanted only to achieve his goal of becoming a successful writer" but she doesn't seem to realize that's why he achieved the goal. Not because he was a blessed golden boy all along, but because he wrote while everyone else was playing Spin the Bottle. Instead of crying in and about workshop, he fucking worked.

3) Workshop is stupid. Either Ferris didn't articulate it very well, or the writer couldn't see far enough past her own experience to understand, but workshop is pointless if your writing is better than your peers' and this article presents that plainly.
“Well, she needs the criticism,” Josh said earnestly. “I’d love that kind of a workshop. I’d welcome that kind of feedback.” 
This from the golden boy whose stories had been universally praised, lauded even, who’d never had one negative thing said about his writing.
Yeah! Which means he never had a chance to grow as a writer in the workshop environment! He hasn't gotten the help that being eviscerated in workshop actually is. That's what he meant when he said he'd love it. He wants to grow

However, the writer is simultaneously too sensitive and too thick to appreciate evisceration. She takes it personally and argues back. (This is not a good strategy.) But she also fails to comprehend that it's all to the betterment of her writing, and that she needs to be as hard on her work as the eviscerators her creative writing professors and peers are. 

To recap: workshop is not helping Ferris, who is too advanced for the class to be able to tear him up, and workshop is not helping the writer, who is too immature to use what she's given. So who is workshop helping? 


4) School is school, not the world. 
As we left the workshop, a friend said, “You were totally vindicated. Totally.” 
“Yep,” I said - and then it was over. The moment and then graduate school. It would be years before I realized that almost none of it, at least what had happened in workshop, mattered at all.
Indeed. What matters is whether you can get in your chair and do the work. Which Ferris did. 

4a) The MFA is maybe sort of terrible. Not just because of #2, or because it's full of workshops and see #3, but because:
Maybe the first workshop, when you all don’t know one another so well, but then you hang out, you drink, you make out, you realize you are competing with one another for the prize of attention and praise and connections and publication, you have inappropriate crushes on people who are not available but act like they are, and yes, hello, all of that taints your views of other people’s work.
Let's unpack. a) Hanging out, drinking, making out, and inappropriate crushes are pretty dumb reasons to spend two years in graduate school. You're wasting resources: professors' time, writers' time, your time; universities' money, your money; your liver, your talent, your lovesick heart. b) Competition for attention is an alluring race, but running that race over and over is not a mature way to move through the world. Grow up. c) Connections and publication, on the other hand, are limited and practical resources, but if you really think that shouldering other people aside and brown-nosing for access to them will not be seen through like a window by the people with the connections, you are an idiot. Write well. "Write so blazingly good that you can't be framed."

And most importantly d) don't buy in to the social bullshit and you won't get bias in the way people workshop you. If they come at you with bias anyway, that's not helpful feedback, and the person is a crummy workshopper with bad karma if they let personal bias shape discussion of the work.

This whole paragraph comes out of immaturity. If this is the environment of an MFA program as well-regarded as Irvine's, why the hell would I want to get an MFA?

5) Yes, there's a difference between men writing and women writing. Or, there's a difference between decent people and relentless people. Or both. 
What was I doing during this time? Cocktailing. Vaguely writing, working on a story collection that would go absolutely nowhere.  Taking care of my sister during her bout with cancer. 
Time shunted from writing into caring for her sister: I seriously doubt that Ferris, or Updike or Steinbeck or Pound, would remove himself from his career in letters in order to care for a family member who needed him. But then, I doubt that Rebecca West or Katherine Mansfield would have, either. Maybe this is one of those cases of gender tendencies making the situation look sexist and unfair, while the non-gendered differences between kinds of people lessen the reality of that sexism and unfairness a little bit. Because "vaguely writing" is not the way Ferris was writing in grad school. And it wasn't the way Karen Russell wrote in grad school, either, I'd bet. And if you can't do better than write vaguely in grad school, you won't be able to do it out in the world, either. That I know for sure.

6) To sum up: write without regard to others if you actually want to be a writer. Don't invest much in workshop, one way or the other. Don't waste energy hating people who don't notice you because they're living their lives. And behave well enough to your fellows in grad school that they won't write bitchy articles about you later.