Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Prologue

In 2014, I got tagged in a "ten books that mattered to you" meme. I spent a while putting this list together, and have continued referencing and revisiting it ever since. Although there are many runners-up (Absalom, Absalom!, The Open Curtain, Inside Scientology), and although I've read some necessary-to-my-life-and-brain books since 2014 (The Argonauts, I am not Jackson Pollock, Moby-Dick), these still stand as the ten most important, most impactful books I've read.
1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anais Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
These are all by white people, sadly. Five are by men and five are by women. Six are fiction and four are not. Six are by Americans, three are by UK writers (two British, one Irish), and I could not find out much of anything about Dorothy Herrmann, unless she's Bernard Herrmann's daughter as well as the author of the Keller book, in which case she too is American.

I thought I might, for the next several weeks, write intermittent posts about why these books matter so much to me. I don't know if I'll go one by one or not, because some of these books were important for clear-cut reasons that don't require much analysis. Maybe I'll lump a couple together.

Oh, and there's one that towers over all the rest: Hamlet. But it's not a book, it's a play, and I think of it as a kind of river flowing under my reading constantly. And its importance is both more ordinary and more subjective than the rest of these. Hamlet matters to me because of 1) its music and 2) what it demonstrated to me about making art. Those aren't reasons for me to recommend it; those are reasons 1) to love it and 2) to teach it.

I could teach some of these ten, but others would be hard. The same poem read aloud by 20 people is going to sound terrible in some percentage of those voices, and that average applied to some of these books would wound me. Hamlet, though, can take whatever you throw at it, and it will keep swinging, as it has for 400 years.

Anyway, look for these posts coming up if you like it when I talk about books. That's a big if, I realize.

Monday, February 20, 2017

From Me to You: A Little About Networking

Last week, as I prepared the exegesis post for "The Girl on the Bike", I wrote this:
I must disclose that I have a dear friend who's a semi-dormant editor at the Rumpus, and I ran "The Girl on the Bike" by her before I sent it in. I am certain that I got an acceptance because of the piece's quality, not because I got my friend to push something into publication as a favor. But the nature of the writing world, like most professional worlds, is that the more people you know, the more help you can get in order to succeed. I have a lot to say about this, as it pertains both to this piece in particular and to publishing in general, but I am lucky in who I know and I'm well aware of it and you can be mad at me if you want. I got lucky by paying for opportunities for myself, but I also got lucky by showing up, for free, for years, in all kinds of circumstances. I'm going on and on now but I will write a separate post about this someday.
I wrote this as a footnote, and then I took it out. I didn't want to distract from the issue at hand, which was talking about "Girl", and by the time I was typing the last sentence I realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject than I could put in a footnote.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I recently made long-distance friends with a fascinating writer of poetry and prose. After I rando-emailed her, she Googled me, sensibly, and found my blog, and read my From Me to You series. She asked in her next email if she could share the series with her students, because she found it helpful and thought they would too. I tried not to use too many exclamation points in my reply, but I was flattered and pleased that I'd been of help. Others have told me they've referred students to the series, as well. This got me wondering whether I should collect the series and print it, or put it in an ebook. Still considering. What do you think?

In the meantime, I've written another installment, which I'll put up next week. It's not about submitting work, as the first five were, but it definitely circulates around the issue of publishing.


This week, on deadline, I wrote a thing. I'm not satisfied with it, but off it goes to workshop anyway. (see "deadline".) It's definitely the beginning of something bigger rather than a story that stands on its own, and I'm looking forward to digging deeper into it later. Through this whatever-it-becomes, I will finally wreak my revenge on Casablanca for its mediocrity.

Yeah, I said it. Argue against me. Unemotionally.


Reading at present:

Anne Enright, The Gathering. The audiobook is driving me totally crazy so I think I'm going to pick up the paper book sometime this summer instead. The woman reading it is so slow that I lose track of what the last sentence said by the time we're in the middle of the next sentence, and the library app doesn't have the ability to change speed like iBooks does. Fully four seconds elapse between every sentence, which makes me want to scream. I really like the writing, though.

Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja. Funny and moving and interesting and beautifully detailed. If you are a person who gets bored by other people's dreams, you won't like it. But I'm not, so I do.

Kate Zambreno, Heroines. So good I wish I could take it more slowly than I am. I did not like her novel Green Girl (I believe I'm the only one) (sorry), but I deeply love this.

The Cupboard Pamphlet. I picked up a subscription to the Cupboard at AWP last year, mostly because their tote bags were terrific, and man, I'm glad I did. I read duncan b. barlow's "Of Flesh and Fur" a couple of weeks ago and raved about it for two days, and then I read John Paul Stadler's "Prehistoric", and admired it although it was not my kind of thing. The Cupboard publishes tiny, beautifully designed little booklets, and I have not yet read one that wasn't excellent. Check it out.


This weekend I am going to separate literary events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I guess that's my life now.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Me on the Rumpus!

Yesterday, a wonderful thing happened: a piece of mine, "The Girl on the Bike", appeared on the Rumpus.

I have so much to say about this piece and its appearance. For starters, I've been wanting to place work at the Rumpus for six or seven years now. Like a lot of people, I found the site during Cheryl Strayed's run as Dear Sugar, but I soon discovered that the Rumpus published innovative, intelligent, deeply affecting work, and I badly wanted to be on the roll call with that work. I submitted a couple of times with no luck. Then I got smart about finding the right fit for my work vs. begging to be let in the door, and I waited to write something that would be right for the site. Nothing was. For years.

One morning in the fall of 2015, I was driving to work when I saw the dog and the bike exactly as they feature in the piece. Something about the incident stuck with me, shouted at me, would not leave me alone. It took a year and my friend Lucas to figure out what it was.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sick It Up

Last night was a bad one.

I woke up around midnight with a severe pain in my midsection, a round tortilla of suffering right where my ribs flare open. It felt like heartburn, but it steadily increased until it was the second worst pain I have ever felt. I couldn't but wake up my husband, and soon I was actually writhing in pain on our bed.

About a month ago, an uncomplicated stab of pain right at the bottom tip of my left scapula began interfering with my days. It would begin midday and get steadily worse until I could no longer concentrate by the time I left work. The only thing that helped it was lying down; being upright invariably made it worse, no matter if I was sitting or standing. After three days, I went to the doctor, and she told me that bad habits had pulled my musculature out of alignment and I needed physical therapy.

Matt frantically searched the internet for what could be wrong with me. Panting with anxiety, he brought me a glass of water with baking soda mixed in and told me to drink it all. I did. By then I was hunched over the toilet, moaning, occasionally banging my head against the porcelain lid to distract from the pain. It had occurred to me that throwing up might fix whatever this was; sick it up was what I kept thinking, sick it up. As if I'd swallowed a wasp, and needed to pull its pincer out. But I didn't feel especially nauseated. Which meant that any throwing up had to be induced.

I started going to physical therapy a few weeks ago. At first it made me better. The pain lessened. I kept icing my shoulder and taking my industrial-strength Aleve dosage. But then, at my third appointment, my regular therapist wasn't available and I had a different one. For whatever reason, his massage and manipulation of my spine brought me right back to where I was. (I'll be writing about this PT session; it felt violative and frightening, even though I'm positive the therapist did not mean it to be so.) Since then I have slid forward and backward and sideways, as if on wheels in a bowl. The pain lessens and worsens, the muscles all around my scapula get looser and weirder and stronger and tighter. That contradicts itself, but the whole joint and its girdle of flesh seem to be changing.

The pain did not get better. So I stuck my finger down my throat and I sicked it up.

One day, at PT, I was doing the exercises the assistants told me to do, and the pain in my scapula gave way to a different pain. I tried to describe it to the therapist later, as she pinched and pressed on my arm, telling her it was underneath the regular one. On a deeper level. Oooohh, it went. If I could press down directly on the place of the pain, black acid would squirt out of it. I'd run water into the place until the squeezings went gray, and then clear. She did not understand. Below? she asked. Like here? No, I said. Never mind.

Bulimics baffle me, a little. Throwing up is so unpleasant that I don't know why you'd make yourself do it so often when, for example, you could just choose not to eat. And it always takes me so long to recover after I throw up: the smell, the inflamed throat, the sense that my face is allergic to itself. I suppose, like all things, you get used to it. Or the quality of "does not enjoy throwing up" is on a spectrum, and some people tolerate it better than others.

I thought of layering like nail polish, like puff pastry. Like a personality: beneath my veneer of coworker-friendly is a thin laminate slat of civilization; beneath that is drywall of morality; beneath that is a load-bearing two-by-four of be kind. Too much metaphor and abstraction, but it's in service of describing the pain in my shoulder, which I do not understand, and which feels more mystical than physical. Underneath the showy pain that sent me to the doctor perhaps lies a disfigurement of the whole system, one I picked up somewhere in the passage from 2010 to now, and only by breaking down the cell walls one by one, session by session, do I uncover the first layer of real pain, which has remained quiet until now.

Sick it up. Sick it up.

It didn't surprise me that the shoulder pain was on my left side. There's a logical explanation for this: I am right-handed, so all the muscle strength is on the right side, so the left is weak enough that the muscles atrophy and deform just by trying to do ordinary life tasks like sitting upright. But the explanation underneath that one: I've always thought of my left side as my creative side. I tattooed myself first on that side, first and most meaningfully. Tom Servo is my right-arm man, but the lamppost of Narnia shines on my left shoulder. When I injured myself in yoga, it was on my left, because yoga was taking up creative space I should have used to write. When an idea is blocked or is blocking me, my left wrist (broken in seventh grade) aches. Now, here I am, facing the most generative season of my writing life, scared of and excited about what has to come out of me before May 20th, and I am arm-bicycling in place on the machine every Tuesday and Friday. Trying to locate the pain underneath. Trying, failing, to press it out without bruising my skin.

I vomited over and over, coughing out dessert and then dinner and then afternoon snack and then, although this seems impossible, the morning's smoothie. Relief, immediately - not total, but significant. I rinsed and waited, and the tortilla of suffering faded and dwindled to nearly nothing. I drank more baking soda and more Mylanta. Matt rubbed my back and sat with me in the dark, our heads touching. I'm sorry, I said to him. I'm sorry I worried you so badly. No, he said. I'm glad you're all right. I think I'm all right, I said.

My shoulder ached.

I laid back on a little platform of pillows so the acid wouldn't return, and I watched a bad movie until I fell asleep. Matt's even breathing comforted me. The next morning, I hurt a little, between my ribs and under my shoulder. As if I'd eaten too much marinara, and hadn't been careful on the weight machine.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017


So, my day job requires management of many kinds of tasks. Today I gathered price proposals for an office party, conferred with our file clerk and a paralegal about how to strategically reorganize a client file, called a forensic accountant to figure out how to send client documents to her most efficiently, sent those documents, followed up with the assigning attorney, and fixed a minor mistake I made regarding our offsite storage. Among other things.

Since August, I've been asking one of our vendors to send me a copy of our contract and straighten out for me what services we pay for and what services we don't. I need this information before we re-up with the vendor. Since August I've been asking. This is the end of January.

Yesterday I got a perky email from a different person at the same vendor saying hi, here's your contract, I'm taking over your account, how can I help you with this upgrade? I wrote back with three detailed, matter-of-fact paragraphs about what I wanted to know from him and what I was seeking for our next period of service, and I thanked him for sending me the contract at last. I read the email a few times for clarity before I sent it.

At one point I put in "I'm sorry if this seems rude, but", and then I took it out. Because I don't need to apologize to our vendor for seeming rude. Our vendor needs to damn well apologize to me for taking four months and two salespeople to send me a five-page document I asked for. But my natural instinct is to apologize when I use brevity and clarity to demand an answer.

There's research on women and "I'm sorry" at work, most neatly and positively summed up in this Refinery29 article, but also debated in Cosmo, the NYT, and elsewhere. Women say they're sorry a lot. There's a connection, I think, between this cultural habit and the research on powerful women seeming like bitches while powerful men seem assertive.

In late October, I met with a salesman in a similar field but for a different purpose. Partway through our conversation, I remarked on something to do with how large our firm was compared with other family law firms in the area, and he said "Let's not compare sizes." I don't know exactly what my face did, but he ramped up his sales patter to sales babble for a few minutes, and then things got almost back to normal. The meeting didn't last much longer. Defeat gave a sort of slump to his shoulders as he handed me his card before leaving. He knew we weren't going to be doing business.

Either he slipped, or they don't tell you in salesman school not to make dick jokes to female office managers.

The harm in this situation was minimal (mostly me thinking "what a dumb thing to say"), but it was a reminder that in another room, with an office manager of another gender, the same comment would have drawn him closer to closing a deal instead of pushing him farther off. Which was a reminder of the difference between me and some other person with different genitals doing my job in another firm. I felt my long hair on my back; I felt the makeup on my face; I felt the skirt I was wearing; I felt the jewelry on my fingers. I saw his suit and his bald head and smelled his cologne. I felt my gender all over me, when previously I had felt like a professional human having a meeting with another professional human.

This afternoon, I exchanged a few more emails with the vendor after my initial one. In his first reply, he was cold, just shy of insulting, but he gave me the answers I sought. I replied with with a little more warmth - "this email has made me feel better about [vendor] than I have in a long time" - but his second reply was almost as cold as the first.

I don't know whether he's trying to set a we-don't-have-to-like-each-other-to-work-together tone, so as to cut through all the salesman folderol (which I would appreciate), or whether he has written me off as a bitch and is treating me accordingly. If the latter: again, all I did was ask for what I wanted without apology. I was well within my rights to do so, particularly considering the four months of goose-chasing I've been doing with this vendor.

But I have a female-gendered name. And he has a male-gendered name. And I think that means I'm supposed to apologize and submit, even if he's the vendor and I'm the purchaser.

Sorry, no. That's not what this firm is paying me to do.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Yesterday was my first day of classes for this, the final semester of my M.A. (Partly because I have a job I feel good about and am eager to write multiple projects that have been building over the last couple of years, I don't feel that weird about the M.A. ending. Except I don't know how I'm going to get chances to swim around in my natural environment - the classroom - once this is over.) It's going to be a supportive semester, because two I-hope-I-can-consider-them-friends are teaching two of my classes, and a woman I consider a mentor, even if I'm too shy of her to reach out much beyond the confines of the class, is teaching the third. The syllabi indicate that a lot more is going to come out of me than go into me, creatively, in the next four months.

Anyway, last night one of the professors was talking about the multiplicity of identity in human experience, and his belief that a person has no fixed self, because the self is changing from moment to moment as skin sheds and digestion occurs and gravity yanks ever downward. Physically, but also metaphysically; every millisecond I have one millisecond more life experience than I had before. I agree with him: to put it in an adage, you never step in the same river twice.

This made me think about David Bowie. My husband is a bigger fan of his than I am. I like Bowie conceptually, metaphorically, and intellectually; the pleasure I take in his music is significant, but not universal. Meanwhile, Matt likes Bowie's music. A lot. (In some ways, this example illustrates our dynamic.) He likes Ziggy Stardust, and I like Lodger and Heroes.

We've only listened to Blackstar once, but we found ourselves repeatedly making eye contact across our computers while we listened, amazed. It was about as unevenly wonderful as late Bowie ever is, but here's what blew my mind: he kept experimenting. He knew he was dying, and he kept trying new stuff anyway. He tried new sounds and new collaborations, and he evolved in his creativity, in what he knew would be the last thing he'd create for us.

I mean, if you have terminal cancer, why would you bother to keep evolving? You have a definite end point ahead of you, a point where your identity can flux no longer. Mustn't you find contentment, then? Stop pushing against your own skin for once? Make the album that brings you comfort, that doesn't press you into discomfort when you're already uncomfortable enough?

No. The river keeps moving; Bowie has no fixed identity aside from the multiplicity he's always been. The fixed identity is change.

If he can do it, so can you. Let the river run.