Monday, December 2, 2019

How You Get Into the Pool

For the first time in a couple of years, I've hung a hummingbird feeder outside my office window. They've started to find it, the little birds, and they come visit me now with fair frequency. It's nice.

Most of my body hurts, and I'm moving pretty slowly. It's because I got a job a few weeks ago as a groom at a horse stable. I adore the job, and I'm so happy to be doing even the crummy chores required of me at the barn, but I won't romanticize what it's doing to my joints and muscles and spine. Going from 500-5,000 steps per day to 18,000-30,000 steps per day is a big change. I've Googled and Googled and yes, this kind of painful adjustment to a job full of physical labor is normal and in a few weeks I will be feeling better. But I'm a little worried. I'm almost 40, after all, and I can't bounce back from major exertion like I did in my 20s.

November was like how you get into the pool if you're skittish about water temperature. I wrote one thing, and then I read a book, and then I did no reading or writing for days, and then I read a little  more and wrote a little the end of the month I started feeling more like myself, acclimated to the water, ready to read and write with gusto again. But it won't be like it was.

"Burned out" is not what happened to me w/r/t book reviews this year. I just realized, sometime this fall, that I wanted to do more than one thing in a given day, a given week. As I took on more and more books, I watched fewer films, talked to fewer friends, did hasty work with my other responsibilities. If I had a maid, and didn't have a book of my own to finish, I could've kept it up. (Maybe.) Because I am who I am, though - profoundly scattered among interests and desires - it had to stop.

I'm not shutting down my reviewing work completely, but I'm done pitching reviews for a little while except in the rarest circumstances. I'll keep working for my regular folks, Locus and B&FG and a few others. However, I'm more interested in curating, and working on other parts of my creative life, for the immediate future.

More opportunities for curation will be abundant soon; I've been named the new Reviews & Interviews Editor for the VIDA Review. I'm extremely excited about this, and I feel, as objectively as possible, that it's a great fit for everyone concerned. We haven't had an editorial meeting yet with the new staff, so I'm not ready to talk about volume or strategy or pitches, but I hope you'll put a little bookmark on me in your head if you have something you'd like to pitch in the future.

Some Ceremonials news: I got a Kirkus review (no, I didn't pay for it); the first interview with me about the book has gone up; and I finally found a site that had a graphic template I could use to make a tour date postcard. (Soon to be in paper form; thanks, Moo's Cyber Monday sale.)

Many more guests will read than can fit on this postcard 

I will likely come to the east coast in July, and depending on how the book does, I might do a Midwest/Deep South leg in the fall of 2020. Ceremonials releases in two months and a week, or thereabouts, and I will have lots more news and info for you as the time passes.

A couple of publications I want to share here, in case you missed them:

  • An essay about Black Widow, a movie I love with absolutely no cult following at all, for Bright Wall/Dark Room. This was the fourth or fifth thing I pitched or submitted to them, and I had some heartbreaking near-misses, so it's gratifying to have something accepted.
  • This weird short story called "The First Snow," published in a paper volume of Storm Cellar several seasons ago, newly posted on the website this week. My opinion of my own short stories has shifted so much over time that I honestly have no idea anymore if it's a good piece of writing. I'm happy with what I did, so I'm kinda done worrying about it. 

Look for a short essay on Pink Floyd's The Wall coming soon, something I thought about for a lot longer than it took me to write it, and rambled endlessly to Matt about, poor fella. Listen for a podcast with me and my NB sibling from another...nibling, Ilana Masad, coming soon. Get ready for multiple angsty social media posts as December, my least favorite month of all, wears on.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Irrevocable and Important, Yet So Petty and Dumb

I've now put out all the most worrying fires that got started while I took the month of October off from reviewing. There are plenty of emails that need answering, and a whole chain of labor to do related to a relatively minimal chore (must print shipping label and proofs of freelancer pay, must move printer to desk in order to print, must organize desk in order to move printer, must organize rest of office in order to organize desk, must figure out bookshelf situation in rest of apartment in order to organize office), and o, the pile of books to read. But I feel okay about the future for now.

I do have lots of thoughts and ideas flying around in my head, which is usually evidence that I need to write a blog post. So here I am.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Falling, Falling

I have mixed feelings about fall.

I'm happy for everyone who enjoys it, whether the source of that enjoyment is Halloween or pumpkin spice or sweater weather, but I am not in that camp. When I lived in New England, fall was an arbiter of The Bad Time, when cold and snow would dominate my experience of the world. The crisp air spelled approaching doom.

I don't know how to explain my emotional experience of winter in a way that will convince you, especially if you're a winter-lover. I hated and hate cold, I hated and hate snow unless it's firmly outside a cozy window (and someone else is responsible for clearing off my car), I hated and hate having to bundle myself in garments before going outside and then having to shed them all again once I get where I'm going. I don't just find these things annoying or a little upsetting. I hate them with my whole body, with my whole heart, with my whole pineal gland. There's a reason I never want to leave California again; the climate is a matter of emotional survival for me.

And it's not because I have no experience with snow

October is my birth month, and I always like my birthday. However, the accompaniment to my birthday is always an extended eye-roll about Halloween. Whatever the gene is that gives people Halloween joy, I don't have it. So I coo dutifully at dressed-up little kids and shrug about Sexy Gene Roddenberry costumes and wait for November.

In California it's better, because the weather doesn't portend anything in particular (it was 96F this week). Bad feelings about fall have started to loosen in me, especially because here, months greater than 9 mean the rainy season is on the way, and rain in LA has a strange, supernatural, holidayish feel to it. I no longer feel like fall is an ending, and instead I feel more like it's a spot in a cycle.

All that said: I don't remember living through any prior October in which I felt so overloaded and so wildly incompetent to the task of my life. On Monday movers came and carried the stuff that we couldn't carry ourselves, but for the prior two weeks I'd been moving stuff from one apartment to the other, filling and emptying box after box, a slow, steady, muscle-aching bucket brigade of books and clothes and Stuff. It took me another three days to finish clearing out the old apartment of kitchen, closet, and garage stuff. I am very tired but my delts are ripped, bro.

I took the month off from reviewing, which seemed before I did it as if it couldn't be done, but was the right choice. Not that I could've kept up my regular traffic anyway, because along with the move, I have been working on a copy editing job that has been...just...terrific. The work is fairly easy and quick, the content is silly enough to amuse me, and I'm getting paid. It's a real bright spot in the grinding work that has been my freelance life this year. But I'd hoped to at least do my regular Locus reviews along with a few books from my favorite presses. Instead I made my apologies and did no reviewing at all, and almost no reading.

Because there was plenty more this month. For most of the month I was teaching my first online class, which finished up around when the movers did. I was selected to participate in a thing that I can't reveal, but which makes me very happy and proud. The film series I've been co-curating for a few years at CSUN has suddenly, inexplicably taken off, with much bigger audiences, more attention, and actual funding. I got an acceptance that I don't want to jinx by saying what it was, but which surprised me enormously, as I wrote the piece at the very last minute before deadline, which usually leads to terrible work for me. And it's a long time coming - I've submitted to this place a lot, with pieces I really care about.

In between all that, I watched almost 100 episodes of Parks and Recreation for the first time, as well as more than a dozen movies. I needed something to sit on the couch and do while resting between carrying loads of our stuff from one apartment to the other. I've rewatched old pals (Black Christmas) and tried some new stuff (Millennium Actress). It's been nice.

When October is over, I'm looking forward to enjoying reading again. That's the curse of this job: the traffic of it, and the nature of reviewing only new books, means the bulk of my reading isn't for pleasure. Someday it might be again, but not this season.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

One's Gotta Go

September, uh:

Fourteen reviews is a lot for one month. I didn't file all of them at the same time or even within a few weeks of each other, so it's a little disingenuous about the nature of my productivity. A little. But not a lot.

Now that September is over, I'm looking forward to doing fewer things. October has, oh, six or eight books to read, and November has even fewer than that, largely because I've been saying no to things and keeping well away from Nectar Literary's delectable newsletter.

Idly, I've been wondering what to do next. I'm trying to slow down the reviews because they're not leading to steady income (yet), and that's starting to become a priority. Freelancing is exhausting, and while I'm better suited to it than to a regular job, I'm so worried and keyed up all the time that I'd like to have something else in place by mid-2020.

I'm applying for various opportunities and putting my intentions out there. Irons in the fire include a podcast a friend is launching with me as a rotating guest, a one-time editing job that's going to be helpful on my resume, and of course the book I'm 9/10 of the way done with. The film series I co-run at CSUN has suddenly taken off in popularity, based on our newsletter numbers and an invitation we got for a Halloween event. I'm trying to teach off- and online. But underlying all this is a question mark about making the Venn diagram work for me.

I don't know whether to lean into stuff that I'm good at and makes money (legal work, detail management), or to keep limping along at what I like. I've lived both ways now, and I like this way better, but I sleep better the other way.

In April and then from August until yesterday, I watched the five seasons of The Wire, which I knew was some kind of phenomenon, but which I didn't comprehend as the monumental work of art it is until I was a few episodes in. I started tweeting it, and couldn't stop, and now I have this huge thread of tweets across several months that covers my emotional & critical reactions to the show. People who have seen the show have really enjoyed the thread, they tell me. I've decided to collect the tweets into a little paper zine, because making an internet-based text into a physical text always tickles me. Don't know when, but hopefully sometime in the next couple of months.

Now that I have one essay left, I'm balking at writing it. Even though I get great satisfaction from finishing things generally (TV shows, boxes of tea, leftover dinners), I don't like finishing creative stuff. I went over this in therapy last week and I think it's tied up with fear of success, and/or disappointment that the best part of the endeavor (the making part) is over, and the part I like least (the fixing part) has to begin. Luckily, I found a contest that it'll suit, and its deadline is October 15. So that's a good prod to make me do the work.

Along with that, I'm planning to reread Highbinder this week. An agent event happened on Twitter recently, so I pitched three folks, and got a full request from one yesterday. I haven't read it all the way through in...gosh, over a year? More than two years? Don't remember. It's time to give it another read. I was thinking about it the other week because I know I named a character Malcolm, and I have to change that because the only male character in Ceremonials is named Malcolm. They both look like Malcolms in my head, just of different kinds. But one's gotta go.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Additional-Fire Effect

Just now I opened up edits on a review and I had one of those moments where it all crashed on my head, the whole and entire weight of what I've gotten myself tangled up in for the last two years, all at once, CRASH. The edits were asking me to do the exact opposite of what I've trained myself to do because editors generally prefer it (reiterate the same point in the intro and conclusion, don't be too colloquial, don't go on weird tangents). So I thought about putting myself in the mindset of this editor's wishes, when I had just spent the whole morning in the mindset of editing my own non-review-related work, and had only an hour or so before I had to put myself in a teaching mindset, after spending a few minutes first thing this morning in self-promotion mindset...[pop]

All summer, the tarot has been telling me to be patient and things will improve. Things are improving exactly at the time and in the ways the tarot said they would. This is spooky, but also great, but also, even as things improve, my responsibilities are not decreasing. CRASH.

The best thing to do when I'm feeling overwhelmed is to accomplish a pile of small, overdue things. Getting the oil changed in my car, calling my website vendor, doing some chores for an authors' group I'm involved with. But instead I'm just making list after list of things to do and worrying about email replies I haven't received. Rearranging rather than doing.

There's good news. The last couple of weeks have been emotionally unnerving, but I channeled that energy into writing the Last Tango in Paris essay I'd 3/4 given up on. I couldn't stop working on it for the past two days, not even to go volunteer with the horses. Now, it's essentially done. That means I've written nine of the ten essays for Weird New Shit, which means I'm on track, and not behind. I will finish it by the end of 2019. That feels so good that it throws a blanket on some of the fires elsewhere burning in my freelance life. The blanket is semi-flammable. I elect to feel good about the smothering effect today and worry about the additional-fire effect tomorrow.

In the past couple of months I've stopped drinking almost entirely. I tried this out early in the year as a Decision, but it didn't stick, and so instead I'm trying it as a habit with occasional exceptions. My relationship with alcohol has never been addictive, so my motivations for the teetotaling habit are about feeling good, changing the physical cycles my body goes through daily and weekly, and sitting with psychological discomfort instead of blotting it out. I'm using vaped cannabis a little bit here and there, but it's so different from booze. I can't really get used to it or predict how it will affect me, so I like it less. Also, I have only been marginally successful at rewiring my brain to believe that cannabis is OK. Drugs were very, very not okay in my family, and that training has lasted despite the increasing legality of weed and, you know, being an adult with my own judgment.

Next week an interview that's been in the works for two years is actually being published. I think. I won't believe it until I see it. This week, a review is going up at a publication I labored to break into. Ask me about it sometime.

All right, enough, I need to spend the afternoon accomplishing small, overdue things. Oh fu--CRASH

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Squintable Qualities

In case you're part of a different mailing/social media list than the other stuff I propagate, you should know that I'm teaching an online course in book reviewing at Barrelhouse in just under two weeks. We've got a few spots left, and I'd like to fill it to capacity. Asynchronous (the deadlines are weekly, so whether you're in Missouri or Timbuktu, it's of no moment), and $135 including the cost of a book from Nouvella.


Also, my website now features a press kit for Ceremonials, including a one-sheet (press release) and other info. I'm starting to put together tour dates, and those'll be up there too when I have them.

My vacation a couple of weeks ago gave me some real breathing room, and some time to work on two of the three remaining essays for the collection I'm determined to finish before the end of 2019. At first I worked on the Last Tango in Paris essay, but it was sloggy. Imagine a child who doesn't want to leave the house or car or Target toy aisle kind of whiningly dragging her limbs and fingers to do what her parent has urged her to do, and that's kind of how it was.

After getting permission from Marissa to set it down and try something else, I wrote pages and pages on Mildred Pierce instead. This essay has exploded into something way bigger than I expected. I might have to cut some entire threads away, or write something longer than I've written before in this mode. It's a big mess. I love it, and mentally, it's both all I want to do and a terrifying spectre of work to come.

Just now wrote several hundred messy words about the way vacation dragged up my conflicted feelings about book reviewing and the position I've found myself in here in September of 2019, five months away from my first book publication and so piled up with work for minimal/no pay that I can't see over the top of it. The conflict is about being good at something that has only helped me to be the kind of writer I want to be in this sidewinding, indirect way, and that may not be helping me do that at all anymore. About editors liking the thing I do as a kickstand more than they like the thing that is the bicycle. None of those words drew meaningful conclusions, so I hid them somewhere else.

Worry is so heavy.

I took a writing workshop on vacation, a very low-key one, and one of the discussions got involved enough that I sent my Singin' in the Rain essay to the rest of the group as "this is what I meant about The Lifespan of a Fact." The instructor, whom I really liked and who I think liked me, said she enjoyed the essay a lot. I told her it had collected nineteen rejections. She said "Wow. Really? That's a surprise." That soothed me, as I'm close to despairing of that one. I know it's good. No one wants it.

It's so strange how blessings have come to me in the last few years. I put out wishes and gratitude and work into the universe, and what I get back is always just to the left of what I thought I was seeking. And it turns out fine. I can't put most of the examples in writing, but here's one: I'm friends with a bunch of head editors at small presses at this point, and they've all helped me enormously, but their help hasn't been specific to getting any of my books published. Like, I thought that'd be the favor I'd want from a small press editor, to accept my manuscript, but no, they grant me other favors instead. It's terrific, but also why are we doing it this way, life?! I'm grateful for the blessings but unable to unravel what their squintable qualities mean, nor how to plan around and beyond them.

Or my editorship at Barrelhouse, which has evolved into a hefty bullet point on my CV, and it was utterly random how that happened and how it progressed into teaching an online course for them. But this I can say: none of it would have happened if I hadn't pushed. If I hadn't said I want this, may I have it? to the people who could give it to me.

So if there is a lesson from this extremely confusing period of my life, it's "ask for what you want." You may not get it, but you are far less likely to get it if you don't ask.

Also, here's a truth: I am so grateful that I heard a thousand times no about book publication for as long as I did. All around me, I'm seeing authors fah-reeeeeeking ouuuuut about their first book, from pre-pub terror to post-pub obsessing about reviews and sales hiccups. I still have plenty of time to participate in these behaviors, of course, and I'm not saying I'm so far above it all that I'll never melt down about a mean review. But the deeper I've dug into literature and publishing and magazines and rejection, the cooler a head I've been able to keep about it all, and the more I've been able to strategize about what I want out of book publication (in short: legs, not blitz). The dozens of reviews I've promoted over the last couple of years have taught me how to promote stuff, when to start and stop, how much is too much, and not to cringe when tooting my own horn.

Often I'm frustrated that X measure of success couldn't have happened two or five years ago, instead of now. But two or five years ago, I did not have the emotional stability about my work to cope with a book coming into the world. I can see exactly how I would have behaved from observing the people who, I can tell, were not ready. I never thought I'd be glad that my first book waited so long before arriving - sometimes I have been carved from a single block of impatience about this - but I'm telling you, it's so much better for my soul that it's happening now.

Speaking of good for my soul, today's a horse barn volunteer day. I missed the horses on vacation. I missed the smells of them, the happy weariness of my body after four hours with them. I'm trying to learn their body language from this book, but it's so complicated, and conflicts with human body language so much, that it's slow going. I don't know where this current involvement with horses is headed, but if all it remains is mucking stalls and currying twice a week, I'm on board.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Drop, Pull Back

A while ago I attended a group meeting with people I didn't know very well. The dynamics of the group were extremely weird; one person was very dominant (not abusively/obnoxiously so, just...alpha), and the others kind of automatically succumbed. As a versatile, I tend to consciously lean bottom when I'm around dominant people, rather than trying to compete with them. Competing with tops - particularly tops who aren't aware of how domineering they are - doesn't go well in groups. If I put my head down and let them lead, they are happier and more group stuff gets accomplished. If no one in the group is interested in leading, I'll go top. How much I let my inner leader out depends on the dynamic and the context.

Anyhow, when this dominant guy interacted with me directly, I alternated between direct answers and answers that would lead in a circle back to him, rather than to me. I kept a fence between the vulnerable parts of my personality and the questions he asked. Sometimes he needled, and I smiled and misdirected. I usually do this with people I straight-up dislike, rather than people who are harmless but not that easygoing, and I dislike so few people that my skills are rusty. I can't quite explain why I felt the need to protect myself around him, but that's what my instincts told me to do.

One of the favored books of my library is The Secret Language of Birthdays, a reference book that's a unique mix between astrology and big data. The authors have assembled a kind of composite horoscope for every birthday in the year based on the average traits of famous people born on that day. I love this book. It's often right, although not perfect (my husband's horoscope is 100% wrong), and I love reading people their birthday pages and asking them what they think. Mine is bang on.

When I got home from this group meeting, I went straight to the birthday book. I was thinking about a particular passage in my birthday horoscope that I hadn't understood very well:
October 13 people can be very elusive when necessary. Those who wish to use an October 13 person to elicit information or appropriate knowledge may find that after having had their interview or conversation they have learned precious little, if anything at all; what they grasped was but smoke and mirrors. 
Yep. That's exactly how I acted in that group. Deliberately elusive, instead of throwing it all out on the clothesline.

I could write for a while about how I developed the judgment to elude rather than expose. Mostly it was due to a terrible human being I met soon after college, whom I trusted, and who turned out to be just a little bit of a sociopath. He used a personal mistake of mine to make me homeless, for example, when it was really none of his business. A couple of years later, I took the time to analyze how he wormed his way into my confidence, and the warning signs I could have understood better. Since then, my trust has had layers and subtleties, rather than diffusing out to whoever. I'm not a private person at all - good luck blackmailing me, truly - but letting people understand how I think, what I want? That's a whole different ball game.

After I reread that passage in the birthday book I went on and reread the rest of my horoscope. I read it often, to remind me who I am when I get stuck in surface identities or other people's expectations. Different aspects of the horoscope have become more and less important over time. This time, the "advice" section stuck out so strongly it might as well have been red and blinking:

You must learn to relax. 
Take frequent vacations or at least rest periods where you do absolutely nothing. 

Lately, the shoulder pain that plagued me in early 2017 has returned. I spent hundreds of dollars and loads of time on physical therapy then, before I figured out that the problem was simply my posture. Between my heavy, slippery-strapped purse (right shoulder) and my sleeping posture (left side), I unconsciously jack my left shoulder forward all the time so that the muscles in my back stretch and warp and eventually start to hurt. Dozens (hundreds?) of times a day, I consciously relax those muscles, drop the shoulder and pull it back. Drop, pull back. Drop, pull back. The pain varies every day depending on my activities and how successful I am at remembering to do this, but lately it's been very bad, such that I'm using a silver-bullet pain relief potion I've been hoarding for almost a decade (it's discontinued) just to make sitting up bearable. Matt tapes me some mornings, which helps but isn't a great solution; my muscles just pull harder against the tape.

You must learn to relax. 

I didn't know that relaxing was something I had to learn, rather than something I could just do. Or, perhaps I didn't understand that relaxing was something I had to learn.

This morning I went for a walk. I left behind my phone, which I rarely do anymore when I go out to run or walk. I wanted to feel some fucking peace and quiet. But my mind yammered at me so loudly. I'm going out of town on Saturday and I can't stop worrying about that: about my lodging arrangements there, what I'll miss here in terms of freelance work, the growing pile of books for when I get back, the work that's in limbo right now, the creative work I want to do there, whether I'll have the materials I need, missing friends, seeing friends, flights and timing, what I'll fit into my suitcase, money stuff, a weird job idea, Ceremonials arrangements, ya ya ya ya ya. Woes both practical and existential, so many of them I could barely see.

I felt exhausted. Not physically but mentally. Just from thinking. I'd barely been awake for an hour. I tried both a mantra and a song to clear my head but neither worked.

I stopped at a shady spot and sat down on the curb. Drop, pull back. You must learn to relax. A calm, continuous breeze blew. I felt frail, like a vase so thinly forged you can see light through it. My brain kept motoring, so I tried not to resist it, but instead to observe tiny, obvious things: the shadows of leaves on the pavement, the temperature, the breeze, any birds. Drop, pull back. Distantly, I heard the peacocks that this family a few blocks away keep in their backyard. Their calls carry extremely well, but it's still largely a matter of wind direction whether I can hear them on my walks. I concentrated on nothing else but hearing those peacocks. The call was so far away that straining to hear it blocked out a lot of other mental endeavor.

Suddenly the breeze felt good. Suddenly I was able to close my eyes. Suddenly I could stop worrying, for a second, about half of the things on my mind. It was like putting that potion on my back: the problem wasn't gone, but the pain was, for a little bit.

You must learn to relax. 

How do I relax? How do I learn how to do that? How do I know the difference between relaxing and manically performing leisure activities, which translates in reality to performing coping strategies for stress rather than enjoying actual down time? How does my either/or personality find space for actual relaxation in a given week, instead of long stretches of work hard/sleep hard?

Drop, pull back. Drop, pull back.

The good news is that the place I'm going on Saturday is the only place I've ever been where I feel truly relaxed and yet not lazy. I can sit in one place for hours, pass up opportunities in order to stare out the window without feeling guilty about it, take walks going nowhere for no reason. In the rest of my life I feel the need for a purpose almost every waking moment, but not there. Purpose evaporates easily as soon as I set foot there.


I should tell you promotional news about Ceremonials and the other stuff that's been published this month. Preorders are open and good stuff is happening. But I can't bring myself to open up those doors in my head again before I finish this off and publish it.

I must learn to relax.