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.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

In Which I Fail to Slay (But Do Get Home)

I don't know where else to put this.

Last night I went to see Beyoncé at Dodger Stadium. The night divides into two parts: the actual concert, and the complete disaster I encountered in trying to get home.


From where I sat, Beyoncé was about three inches tall, but even at that distance, I could feel the force of her charisma. She is a queen. We all knew that, but it was still remarkable to feel her power unroll toward me. The concert was this odd, careful mix of giving herself to fun and strength and artistry on stage + a stage show crafted and calculated to give you goosebumps, predictably, every 90 seconds or so.

She used her hair like an aspect of her costume. She sang as beautifully as anyone ever has. She has the best smile since Marilyn Monroe.

But MAN. There were 50,000 people in that stadium, and almost all of them sang along with every word for two full hours. It couldn't drown her out, nothing could, but the audience was 80% of what I heard. The acoustics sucked, because it's a ballpark and not the Hollywood Bowl. And all the surrounding business of going to a show of this magnitude turned me off so badly that I don't think I'll ever go to another one.

She only sang about half the words of a given song, letting the audience sing the rest. Instead of feeling like a cheat, this felt to me like it was tied up with her performance persona: the whole show seemed like a continuous give and take of energy. She was giving us all she had, but she was getting all that back from us at the same time. We were each doing our half to make the show be spectacular. It was like kung fu: the transfer of energy to your opponent with least trouble and injury to yourself.

The materialism was outrageous. T-shirts were $45 apiece. I didn't plan (in terms of outfit) for the stadium to be as cold as it was, so I ended up buying a sweatshirt...for $85. Outrageous.

She also sang weirdly abbreviated versions of all the songs. I don't think she sang a single song all the way through; instead it was like verse-chorus-chorus-next song. Like a medley that moved through most of her A catalog. Breaks in between medleys for costume changes, like six or ten of them, an unnecessary number of costume changes.

Can you see actual-size Beyoncé? Her hair is a white blob, and she's kind of to the right of what look like three stairs.

Some of the numbers were stunning. She used a shallow stage full of water for "Freedom", and it was way beyond any concert I've ever seen in terms of innovation and impact. But on balance, going to a concert like this showed me that I don't really need to go to concerts like this, that I'll do better listening to records and watching official footage on YouTube.


Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Peek Back Through the Salt Water

I just got home from a session in a sensory deprivation tank. For those of you who've never seen that one episode of The Simpsons, it's a tank filled with salt water in which you lie there and float in total darkness and silence until someone comes and gets you out.

I got home and I immediately wanted to come here and write a post. And it's not just because I seem to have taken August off from this blog, totally without intending to, and I miss writing here. It's also because, although this sensory deprivation session did not do the things I expected it to (give me cool hallucinations, allow me to drift into a semiconscious state, open up my chakras, make my brain shut up for 60 short minutes), something it did do was help me to look back. I've spent most of this summer looking forward, particularly as it's been closing up in spectacular fashion, like a fireworks show after a mediocre baseball game. I've needed to focus energy on planning and looking forward and have not spent a lot of time examining what's passed through my mind and body of late.

As soon as I started looking back, I felt the need to record the ride I've been on in the last three months. So here we go.


--The Little Mermaid live at the Hollywood Bowl. Jodi Benson singing "A Part of Your World". Rebel Wilson being amazing. Susan Egan live. Etc.

--Friend home from a year of graduate school in England.

--First session for Tom Servo tattoo. Three hours.

--The Amazing Kathleen in town and on my couch. Meals at Ink and Yamashiro and In-n-Out. Visits to LACMA and the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It was so fucking hot that weekend that we couldn't hike or go to the Huntington, but I made her promise to come back so we could do outside things.

--Aimee Bender and Brian Evenson reading at Book Soup in downtown.

--Dental appointments: 2


--First writing workshop led by me.

--Lidia Yuknavitch and Cynthia Bond reading at Chevalier's in Hollywood.

--Co-worker's sort-of baby shower, which I sort-of helped plan.

--The Killing Joke in the theater.

--Second Tom Servo session. I think another 2.5 hours.

--Weird Al live at the Hollywood Bowl. Matt's birthday.

--Dental appointments: 4


--Sufjan Stevens live at the Hollywood Bowl.

--Star Wars Marathon at the Ace Hotel.

--Laid-back live music party in Santa Clarita.

--Sign lease for new apartment.

--Buy new car.

--Try sensory deprivation tank.

--Start second year of graduate school.

--Dental appointments: 4

Also this summer:

--Got multiple responses on the secret project, leading to all the feels

--Got news about a writing fellowship I didn't get, but I did get put on the alternate list for, which I choose to see as good news (more on this in another post, possibly)

--Got a book review published, first time ever

--Got an acceptance for a fall issue of a litmag, more news on that soon, I hope

--Got two? three? rejections, still patiently waiting for responses on a few others that matter a lot to me and the wait's driving me crazy on the days I allow myself to remember it

--Got raise, plethora of new responsibilities at work

--Hired three new people at work (one of them not my responsibility at all, the other two hired personally)

--Coped with Matt working 80+ hours/week for most of the summer; have not yet been buried alive under books and undone dishes

--Read 23 books, give or take a few

--Two doctor's appointments

--And a partridge in a pear tree


None of this is intended to show off, because Lord knows I don't understand how I went to the Hollywood Bowl three times this summer if I did not somehow trade lives with someone richer. Some of the perks (car, deposit for bigger apartment, new teeth) derive from Matt's insane work schedule, and what we materially gain from it, but honestly I'd rather have my husband around than have him make more money.

Also, I know people who would look at this list and go yaaaaawn, because they are busy like this all the time, seeing concerts and traveling and Doing Things on the regular. That is not me. The list above represents 200% more concerts than I generally go to in a season, and a great deal more time in the dentist's chair than I like to spend in a given decade.

In looking back, I see a worthwhile, busy, challenging, fascinating, transitional summer. And I see I ought to be proud that my health has not declined while doing so much. Other things have slid (mostly housekeeping), but I am still getting almost enough sleep and I haven't been sick, mentally or physically.

I have a post on brew, but not on tap yet, and I hope I get to it before the end of next week. I'm going off-grid for Labor Day, on the same writing/yoga retreat I did last year. It's going to be pretty splendid if my teeth don't get messed up again. I just hope nothing else happens between now and then. Enough has happened to me recently, I think. Enough.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Questions Circulate

As I write this, it's Sunday afternoon, my favorite time to sit at home and watch stupid movies. Instead, I'm sitting in Panera eating a chicken salad sandwich with a knife and fork. Every now and then I move my right arm and wince.

I know how I got here, but the utter discomfort with which I inhabit my body is still way beyond the norm.

1. The fake acrylic teeth covering my own make it risky and extremely unpleasant to bite into anything. Everything gets cut into small pieces and shoveled into the way-back of my mouth. I've been eating a lot of soup and I think I'm becoming anemic.

2. I got my Tom Servo tattoo finished on Friday. The anesthetic goo I used beforehand didn't really work, and it felt like my skin was being flayed off by the end. I think I actually have bruising. This is not the fault of my artist, whom I love and who just wants to put beautiful work on me, but the pain has stayed fresh a bit longer than usual.

3. Our air conditioner broke on Saturday afternoon. It's been in the mid-nineties (Fahrenheit) for the last few days, and it easily gets that hot in our apartment even on less-hot days because of the way the sun falls on our roof. On Sunday I tried as hard as I could to cope with the climbing temperature, the increasing sensation of being in an oven, but when no one had come to fix it by 2 PM and it was actually ninety actual degrees in my apartment, I gave it up and fled to Panera. I was sleepy and hot and immobile at home (anemia? carbon monoxide? hysteria of the skin?), and I felt better once I'd been sitting in a civil temperature and had some smoothie and a sandwich in me. Even if I did have to eat the latter with a knife and fork.

4. The L.A. neighborhood where I live is the closest one in the city limits to Santa Clarita, where a massive brush fire has been raging uncontrollably for the past few days. The sky looked like this on Saturday:

(See the harsh bright-sun shadows on the building across from me? And the scary wrath-of-God sky at the same time? That's Los Angeles. It is the strangest place. I don't want to live anywhere else, though. That very night, Matt and I went to the Hollywood Bowl to see Weird Al as a birthday gift to him. It was very, very hot, but I always have so much fun at the Bowl, even in crappy seats. Outdoors is the best place to hear music.)

The point is, the proximity of this brush fire makes me more uncomfortable than the usual fire-season hubbub. It troubles me. I have friends who are displaced and worried about their cats.

I just cut my pickle in four pieces before I could eat it.

It is a weird time.

Maybe all this weirdness in my body explains why I have, more often than usual, been having The Snap-Back Sensation here and there throughout my days. Do you have this? A moment of consciousness where you suddenly feel all the intensity of being alive in the world, the tug of gravity on your bones, the friction of clothing and air molecules on your skin, the genuine oddness of inhabiting a vessel made of meat? It's like someone has metaphysically slapped you upside the head to get you to stop your hysterics, and whammo, you are ALIVE. All these big questions circulate in your head, which can be disorienting if you're in the middle of doing something else. What even is consciousness? Is consciousness distinct from the soul? Who decided that sentience should live in this strange decaying thing enveloped by a flexible, delicate substance that no one can properly replicate as yet?

Why did our air conditioning break on one of the hottest weekends of the summer? Why does it take three weeks for a laboratory to fabricate my new veneers? Why was I blessed with a whole booth at Panera to myself when usually Matt and I are shoved into a table in the corner?

There's big weird stuff going on in the wider world, too, in case you haven't noticed. It's not my responsibility to think or write about those things too critically, but sheesh. Tragedy or farce or both, depending on your perspective and what lines on the map you live inside. I do not know what is up. I just want things to be normal again. Chicken Littledom is not my favorite place to live.

Some small news about writing: I got an acceptance, which per my usual policy I won't say much about yet, except yay. I'm trying to put together a collection based on a weird idea that continues to be fruitful despite itself, and if I had the wherewithal to sit down and be physically comfortable long enough to put words on the page, I think I could do it. I revised the secret project a little and sent it to another round of readers.

That's all for now. The fall semester approacheth. Maybe by then my body will feel a little more like my own.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tooth Truths

Yesterday I sat in a dentist's chair for two hours while they chiseled off the plastic coverings on six of my teeth and the enamel on two more. I was floating on an echoing, delicious, acid jazz-filled cloud of nitrous oxide the whole time, so I couldn't have cared less. (I don't think I've ever had nitrous before. I would remember. The experience reminded me why I stay a strict distance away from drugs: because altered states are everything I want to be, and I would never stop if I ever started.) This is the second-to-last step in a journey that started when I was a very young girl, allergic to non-tooth-staining antibiotics, and continued through adolescence, when a different dentist chiseled off the stained enamel on my teeth with NO drugs involved (I still have vivid memories of the smell, the sound, the sensation), through estimates of how much it would cost to replace the decaying plastic that stood between my bones and everything I ate and drank and smiled at, through a patch job in Maryland, through worrying at my wedding that my unpretty teeth would be noticeable in pictures - and into mid-August, when porcelain with which I'll be buried will be affixed in eight places in my mouth.

That's a defamiliarization-ridden way of saying I'm getting my plastic veneers replaced with porcelain ones. Yesterday was the first session, where they stripped off the old stuff. I have a picture of what my teeth looked like under there, taken at my hazy request, but given the commonality of dental phobias, I'm not going to insert it here.

Instead, here's a guinea pig wearing a sombrero. 

I have so many thoughts and feelings about how this all went down and is going down that an essay about it is certain to come out of my fingers (and I think I just wrote a paragraph of that). You'd be surprised how much personal history is wrapped up with my teeth, how strong my opinions are about what I'm paying to have done to my smile. But for now I simply want to explain, to those who know me in real life, why I'm so grumpy today and why I'll be eating a lot of room-temperature soup and smoothies for the next couple of weeks.

The "temporaries" they gave me are really just an acrylic mouthguard that was melted onto my teeth. The hygenist compared it to Lee Press-On Nails, and the comparison is apt. It looks a little weird (especially up close) and feels awful. According to my dentist I can pretty much eat like normal, but doing so feels dreadful, so I'm going to stick with soft, swallowable-whole foods for as long as I can stand it.

That's all for today. Take a moment, whatever you're currently going through, and be grateful that your yesterday did not involve the procedure I had yesterday. I would not wish it on anyone.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Did It Go?

Last Saturday, July 9, I taught my first writing workshop. By popular demand, this post will break down that experience.

In brief, it went well. I had four attendees, and all of them were friends of mine, although only two were friends of each other. My agenda ended up shorter than the allotted time, but I added something on the fly that I think was actually more popular and useful than the planned activities. Funnily enough, the only pre-anxiety I allowed in about the workshop was "what if I have too much time and not enough activities?" In reply to that anxiety, I said, well, I'll make something up and do better next time. Et voila, that is what happened. Way to knock out that anxiety, me.

At first I was disappointed that the attendees were all friends, that I had no friends-of-friends or total strangers who wanted to learn from me, but I realize that my name is not Elizabeth Gilbert. And if the publishing butter-churn has taught me nothing else, it's taught me that you have to build a platform in order to find success in these kinds of ancillary writerly activities. Ultimately it was probably better that everyone in the room walked in expecting to support me and have a good time rather than expecting to be impressed by me. (This cool thing happened, too: my friends found each other interesting. I watched it happen. I was so pleased by this, so personally gratified. It makes me look forward to big parties with a bunch of friends who don't know each other rather than dreading them.)

So many people gave me encouragement ahead of time. I felt like I had a little cheerleading squad. I'm not saying that to show off, but instead to express amazement and gratitude. I had no idea when I announced the workshop that so many people across the country would remember when and that I was doing it, and would drop me an email or a Facebook post to say good luck and woot woot. It was pretty fantastic.

In completely unrelated trivia, I own this movie. It's terrible and awesome. 

And a similar number of people have been asking me how it went. The most useful conversation I had about how it went was with my mother, who teaches when she's not revitalizing scholarship on early print technologies. She asked me how this workshop varied from teaching yoga. I told her that teaching yoga tired me out, because I felt like I was giving myself away, whereas this gave me energy because the attendees were offering me their ideas and effort. I felt like we were sharing in each other's creativity, and I was just guiding. Part of this might be influenced by the radically new-to-me pedagogy I saw in action last semester in Dr. Higgs's class, but hey, so much the better.

I felt like we were doing a group project, but I was in charge, telling everyone which way we were going and calling out the purpose of each exercise. Which, for me and my ego, is pretty much the ideal situation: we're all making something together, but I'm the boss. (It would be dishonest to ignore this unpalatable insight about myself.)

The other thing I told Mom was that it was a lot easier to tell when the attendees didn't like what I was doing with them than it was in a yoga class. In yoga, you have to read body language and interpret breathing sounds in order to determine if the students want to murder you for including standing split or asking for another vinyasa. In this situation, the tale is told by people's faces, or whether/how they are putting pen to paper, or how they greet your request to hear what they wrote. It was much more obvious how my ideas were greeted. Reading the general energy of the room was harder than with yoga, or my intuition on that is really rusty.

Seems legit

Mom asked me about the different levels of mastery in the room and how that made a difference when teaching either thing. I said that in a writing workshop I was able to direct a broader conversation about too-hard or too-simple or irrelevant concepts, while in an all-levels yoga class I'd go over to a beginning student and give individual help or direction. The different levels and approaches in the room were a little challenging for me to cope with in the writing workshop, but in a yoga class they can be physically dangerous to the student. Navigating the problem in these two contexts just seemed different rather than one being preferable.

In the end, two of the attendees cried, so I'd call that a successful writing workshop. I'm only sort of joking. Writing cuts deep. It's supposed to. I had so much fun that I want to do it again as soon as possible, but I don't know where I'm going to scrounge up more friends to come, so I think I'll wait until the fall. Anyone interested?