Thursday, July 12, 2018

Unscheduled Leaps

I drafted this post in October of 2017. I was too much of a fraidy-cat to post it then, but as I continue to mull and feel things about leaving my job at the end of March (when will I stop feeling things about it? nngh), it begins to seem like posting this is important. So I edited it a little and here it is.


There's a lot to tell you about the last three months of non-blogging. A lot of things I did and saw that I want to record and analyze. I read Our Mutual Friend and it put me off reading for about a month; I wrote the beginning of a very hard thing, and keep finding more of it squirting out around my edges; I had some experiences with ...mmmteachingkindof and I really really loved them. I went to Santa Fe and regained my center, the feeling of what makes me me.

But here's the main thing: I'm proverbially riding off into the sunset from my job.

Git along, li'l rexy

Sort of. I'm not leaving my job entirely, and I'm not withdrawing from it soon. I'm planning on working for the law firm I work for essentially forever, or for as long as they'll have me, but I'm cutting about 3/4 of my hours gradually over the next four months. [This turned out not to be feasible, in a way that's still disappointing. That job is gone for good.]

I don't have other plans for money right now. I don't have another job, and I don't have other opportunities on the table - aside from those I've applied for, which has little to do with getting them. But I'm sinking, losing ground creatively and just-general-life-ly, and it's because I spend 7:00 am to 8:00 am every morning driving all of 15 miles to get to work, and then I spend most of my afternoon hours sprawled on my couch or in front of my computer decompressing from the experience of work. I may be a hopeless wimp in terms of how most people do modern American life, but that's irrelevant; what's relevant is this way isn't working for me.

It wasn't any fun to realize I needed to do this, and it took me a year between realization and action. A YEAR. I don't know what would've happened if I'd leapt earlier, but I didn't, I'm leaping now, and here's what happens next.

  • I'm teaching a sentence workshop on November 11 for San Fernando Valley-area writers. 
  • I'm running a monthly writing group that's growing in interesting ways. 
  • I'm volunteering at CSUN, working with students on the literary magazine. 
  • I'm in the early stages of partnering with [redacted]. 
  • I'm applying for proofreading and copy editing jobs, even weird ones. 
  • I'm long-distance-volunteering at [redacted] to mentor young writers. 
  • I'm querying agents with my writing craft book and my urban fantasy book. 
  • I'm querying small presses with the other two manuscripts: the secret project and an essay collection. 
  • I'm making zines of my littler work. 
[I can't believe it, but almost none of this worked out. 
  • The sentence workshop was terrif and I want to do another one, but I still suck at promotions & marketing and can't afford to pay anyone to do it for me. If I'm going to teach workshops, something has to happen to draw strangers into them rather than just friends: a book, a partnership, a marketing campaign, something. I don't know how to make this happen other than what I'm already doing. 
  • The monthly writing group has dissolved because it was an astounding amount of emotional effort and people kept blowing it off. When I stopped sending emails about the group early this spring, no one spoke up to say they missed it. 
  • Volunteering worked out great in terms of enjoying myself, but did not net the main effect I was doing it for. 
  • Partnering broke even, but that's about it. 
  • I'm not applying for those jobs anymore - no time, with my writing schedule. 
  • The mentoring thing totally blew up for reasons not of my making. 
  • Still querying but nothing has happened. 
  • Making the one zine was a good idea but has netted almost nothing practical (interest from a publisher, etc). I'm trying to decide whether I should attempt something bigger for my next one, still handmade but with a press instead of a printer, but it's too overwhelming to think about with all else going on.] 
All of this is stuff I can do. I know I am weak at marketing myself, but I'm strong at distributing my energy to a variety of points. Like a seed strewer instead of a seed planter. I'm also strong at my passion, so I'm leaning into volunteering for what I enjoy, instead of waiting and hoping for something paid + passionate to cross my path. Yeah, I hope the volunteering will lead to a job somehow, but the volunteering is adding to my life in itself.

I have other ideas. And I have essays and books to write. And I have piles and piles of other people's books to read. It's all too much to do while holding down a decent job, so the job had to go [this was the main truth I avoided facing for too long, and now that I have, it's so much better] ...or at least to morph. I was scared to ask, but I did, and it turned out okay. 

So here I go. Leaping. 

High hopes for a soft landing
If you want to help, subscribe to my newsletter, tell someone else about my blog or my newsletter, or share links to my work. You can also spread the word about me locally, if you live in LA. If you want to partner with me to teach workshops in your area, I might be down for that.

If you don't want to help, cool. Not everyone has to love me. 

Pictured: me when excited to see someone

(Truth is, the gifs I got when I searched "cat leaping" and "dog leaping"
were so amazing I couldn't stick with just one.) 

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Networking Story (with Parentheticals)

What a month it's shaping up to be. Six of my reviews will appear in four publications, plus there are six more that could appear this month, plus a super-fun listicle I can't wait for you to read. I've attracted a lot of wonderful books to myself in the recent past, even if some of them are very long. The past week has not been especially productive, but I think I was burned out. I read 21 books in June. That number includes a couple of 40-page chapbooks and a couple poetry books, but still. That's a lot.

In another week I'm going on vacation and I'm taking both work books and fun books with me. I decided my trip-out plane book will be The Grip of It, which I really should've read last winter when duncan recommended it, but now it's finally on my coffee table. Can't wait.

Today I want to tell you a story. I constructed it with fictional names and titles to make it clear, but still anonymous.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sawdust in My Gas Tank

I did not ask my therapist this week if her other patients are being as strongly emotionally affected by domestic news events as I am. Did not, but wanted to. I retreat deeper into my creative life and further away from what's out there, and I feel ever guiltier about it. I know myself well enough to know there isn't another choice, and that what I really think, it's not a good idea to spread it around. I was wrong about Melania, I think - not all the way wrong but mistaken about her willingness to be used politically - so it's probably best not to use my brain on such things. I'm okay being wrong; I'm not okay being in a state of hyperalert despair all the time.

can't sleep, CNN'll eat me

That said, the news from the creative side is largely good. I'm relieved to be running slightly ahead of schedule on books for review - have read all the July and August releases in the pile, have reviewed almost everything with a deadline, am working on reading and placing September and October releases now. With two exceptions, one of which is 450 pages and already out, one of which is 530 pages and due in August. So I'll be okay, but I can't exactly relax.

I wrote a tripartite essay that I've been prevaricating about since January, so I feel great that it's done (though not without whining). I'm waffling on whether to try and write another one before July 5. There's a deadline that day that suits the essay very neatly, but I really don't know if I can put it together in a week.

A crème de la crème publication expressed interest in a pitch but is taking an anxiety-inducing amount of time to get back to me about the finished piece. A publication that's a big goal of mine for essays accepted a review pitch. (Subtopic: I feel weird about saying in bios and pitches that my work has appeared somewhere when it's a review, and the pub is best-known for a specific genre. Especially a genre in which I write. But it's technically true.) A publication that's almost as big a goal of mine accepted a regular pitch and I'm deeply afraid I'll fuck it up. Two! two! editors responded to my pitches saying they'd read my reviews. My response was this tweet:

And for the past couple of weeks I've been participating (very badly) in the #1000wordsofsummer project, where Jami Attenberg writes us a note of support every day and we hold each other up on Twitter. I thought this project might, at least for a couple of weeks, get me to work more consistently, instead of the way I do it now, where some days I write morning and afternoon, some days I read in the morning and write in the afternoon, and some days I read both morning and afternoon and don't write at all. And it isn't predictable or dependent on a schedule, it's just what seems like the right thing to do that day. I also hoped that I'd be writing purely creative stuff for all of the daily pages, preferably all on the same project.

None of which happened! I didn't write every day, I "cheated" by writing reviews on some of the days (it's way easier to make myself write reviews than creative work), and I varied what I worked on, depending largely on fancy. I think this might've been my last major attempt to train myself to write every day. My one half has tried to teach my other half that I'm untrainable in this regard many, many times. Maybe this time my other half will goddamn listen.

But I did finish that essay during the two weeks, and wrote something fun about Celine Dion. It was a helpful exercise to participate even as much as I did, much more so than not doing it and being petulant and snotty about it, which is what I always do when NaNoWriMo comes around.

Out in the world:

This month's Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) was with Eileen G'Sell, whom I admire a lot for her astounding fashion game as well as her skill with words. Check it out.

I reviewed my mentor Dr. Haake's book for Anomaly. I filed this review in late 2017, but delays on one side and then another have pushed it to now. I think it was worth the wait.

I reviewed a fascinating thriller for LARB, The Captives, by an author who can boast a gap of 20+ years between her first book and her second. The gap reminds me of Tillie Olsen, but the book sure doesn't. It's an extremely good thriller and I'd love to mail you the ARC if you want it.

Monday, June 18, 2018


Some months ago I listened to a five-year-old interview from the Longform podcast. I believe that a lot has changed at Longform since October 2013, which was when the interview was conducted, and I'm certain that a lot has changed in the life of the subject, Elizabeth Wurtzel. So I can't really guarantee anything about how this interview went, or could be interpreted, except for what I got out of it.

Wurtzel is a tricky figure. She ripped the lid off mental illness with Prozac Nation, made it a topic that was no longer taboo (even if it's still not as easily discussed as it could be), and then she did a whole lot of drugs, wrote some weird books, and behaved really weirdly on the public stage. She seems like she's a difficult person, generally, and that her solipsism has been nurtured in an unfortunate, almost pathological way by her early fame. As a writer she is not someone to rely upon, or even admire, but I believe she's always going to be someone to watch.

I listened to this interview because Prozac Nation meant a lot to me when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and I wanted to know what she'd sound like. She sounds weird, is the answer. She self-contradicted a lot, and when called on it, used slippery rhetoric and arrogance to elude admitting she was mistaken. She redirected or restarted her sentences more often than not. She said some generally insulting things and threw her weight around inordinately.

Nevertheless, there's a certain quote from this interview that I've been mulling over since I listened to it. Which was when I still had a day job, so, like, in March or before. I can't stop thinking about it.
E: I also did not stop bugging people. I mean, people don't know how to do that anymore. They think that you can get things done with a text message. You can't get things done with a text message.

Q: What does bugging people mean to you?

E: It means asking people if you can do something until they say yes. I mean, you just have to ask until they say yes. 
The context had to do with how to get opportunities as a writer. She emphasized that you have to beat doors down and be insistent and annoying before you get the kinds of opportunities you want.

I've pitched reviews to a certain editor at a prominent publication at least a dozen times. Probably closer to two dozen. When I was about to give up on his publication a couple of months ago, he wrote back, with the email subtext of a heavy sigh, to tell me that he'd ask his colleague if they had anything for me. He never got back to me with an assignment, but even that email was proof that being persistent was closer to the answer than giving up was. I mean, you do risk being annoying enough for an editor to block you or ignore you or continue turning you down forever. But as soon as I think in that direction, I think about this Wurtzel quote.

To break it out a little further: a) Giving up is not going to get me closer to a yes from that editor, or any other. That's a guarantee. No one who gave up has reached the top of any mountain. b) Every editor interview I've ever read that talks about the submitting styles of men and women says that generally, men keep trying forever, while women give up after some variable amount of rejection. Considering that, men are statistically more likely to get published. That's not a VIDA thing, that's a pure numbers thing. Men try more, so they succeed more. The person who keeps trying is statistically more likely to get up the mountain. c) It's possible that being too annoying is going to get me no further than giving up. But I don't know that.

That means, if only in percentage, not even considering what feeds the soul, there is less harm in being persistent than there is in giving up.

So I'm going to be persistent. I'm going to keep pitching that damn editor, asking him if he has anything for me, bugging him, until he says yes. I got a third rejection from a women's mag the other day that said "please keep pitching me." Early last week I got a nibble on a pitch at a super-snooty publication, and that guy didn't write me back after I sent the full article, so you better believe I'm gonna ask him about it early this week. If he didn't like it, I'm going to try it somewhere else, and somewhere else, and somewhere else. Until it lands or becomes irrelevant, I'm going to keep trying it.

So thanks, Elizabeth Wurtzel, for giving me the words to whisper to myself every day, staring at the inbox. Just keep bugging them until they say yes.

Somewhat related: I got started on writing 1,000 words every day on Friday. I really wish this had not started on a Friday, but it did, so I got going. I picked up where I'd left off on the Citizen Kane essay and I have a pretty good trajectory for what's going in next. I'm a bit worried that the ideas won't all hang together once I'm done drafting - more so than I have been on a trifecta essay thus far - but it's early yet to be judging.

My ARC pile is juicy right now, and everything is decently far off, so I'm happy. Full measures of good and bad in the past week in terms of writing news.

Out in the world:

VERY IMPORTANTLY: I wrote a long, wacko essay about Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, and the Millions very gracefully accepted it. I am sharing this piece everywhere, persistently, annoyingly. I love and am proud of it and perhaps I'll tell you why in another post sometime. Though I did already write this about it.

I interviewed Kelly Sundberg for TRUE. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, is a stunning piece of craft with an amazingly confident voice for a first book. Grab it before it becomes the next Wild and you're mad you didn't get in on it early.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Scraps from an Off Week

Let us say that this week included multiple self-inflicted setbacks. One of them involved fire. Not a metaphor.

Onward: I signed up for this cool thing Jami Attenberg is doing where we're all together supposed to write 1,000 words per day every day for two weeks in late June. You can sign up for it yourself here. I signed up with the idea of knocking out a substantial chunk of the Casablanca novel, but now I'm not sure. I have a lot of little projects I'd like to get done. My plan from last week to write an essay every day this week didn't pan out; see the short paragraph above. Maybe next week I'll do the little stuff to make way for something bigger.

I don't usually get upset about celebrity deaths, but losing Anthony Bourdain leaves a big hole in culture shaped exactly like himself and no one else. We'll be sorting out his legacy on gastronomy, travel, encountering the Other, and a smattering of other cultural matters for a long time. It'd be nice to've had him around to help us sift through all that.

I've got a music memoir on my ARC pile, so I pitched a handful of prominent music mags this week. They got back to me lightning fast - all with passes, but friendly and encouraging and unbelievably speedy ones. Part of me wishes I'd followed my college-era bliss and become a music journalist after all. I'm sure there are downsides to that profession, but at the moment I can't think of any.

Some days I want to stop doing this altogether, particularly when the reasons I do it are so esoteric. Higgs once assigned us a paragraph about why we write, to be handed in the following week. It took me longer to do it than assignments of many, many pages. And then he forgot to ask for it, so we never handed it in. For me it's not as simple as self-expression or leaving something behind or ego; elements of all that, sure, but it's more about communication - the hope that someone is out there reading, needing me to write exactly what I've written for her brain to hum in just the way she likes. Still, the confirmation that I'm communicating with people who want that hum is rare, and the sense that I'm sliding down into a muddy pool hole filled with dead bodies is frequent.

I cannot more highly recommend Ghost City Press's summer microchapbook series. I've been getting it in my email for two weeks now and YOWZA. It's free. Sign up. Start every day (through September!) with cutting-edge contemporary poetry.

Out in the world:

I reviewed a wonderful novel, a lovely deep-dive novel-type novel, for the Arts Fuse. It's about these two badass Surrealist artists who went on to spread propaganda against the Nazis at great risk to themselves. I loved it. And I think I'm going to read the rest of Rupert Thomson's work, now, too.

I also reviewed a hard-to-pin-down book of cultural criticism for Cleaver. It will interest a really small slice of the population, I think, but it was worth reading.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Hobby Without a Horse

Even though the oppressiveness of a San Fernando Valley summer is nigh, I'm really happy it's June. May was terrific, full of good fortune and joy, but for whatever reason it felt LOOOONNNNGGG. June is exciting for at least two of the bylines that'll appear. One in particular.

Matt asked me the other day how often a piece gets published that I'm genuinely proud of. I told him it was something like one in 20, which feels like a really low estimate, but one in 10 isn't right either. I put a list of them on my website under "Favorites," but the reasons I am proud vary. Some have to do with me being able to write about something I am particularly passionate about, or something that I feel like I have knowledge of that few others do. The piece I wrote about Encircling, for instance; I don't know that a lot of people, no matter what kind of reader they are, have read all the multivolume books I've read, or would draw the same conclusions about them that I do. That makes the piece fairly uniquely mine. (It also makes its appeal pretty limited - how many people care about an obscure Norwegian literary trilogy? - but I can live with that.) The June byline I'm excited about regards one of my favorite hobby-horses, and it makes me burst with pride that other people are going to read about me riding it. Even if only a few others care.

hobby meets horse

Ideas are flowing but I'm feeling less excited about them, because it's starting to seem like I won't have time or interest enough to execute them all. During my freakout a while back I asked Lucas if he thought I should take a few days away somewhere (same place I went last April, I thought maybe) just to write, to wring all the ideas out of my head and then see which ones were viable. He said he didn't think so, in part because I have all day now alone in my apartment to write, and clearly the ideas aren't motivating me enough to put them down.

Here's the thing, though. The piece I'm so happy about coming out in mid-June - I sent twelve pitches on that piece, and no one wanted it. But I knew it was a good idea, so I wrote it. The accepting editor called the finished piece "epic." Certainly I think I'm at my best in full form instead of when pitching, but also, for some pieces, the execution is simply better than the idea. A handful of my pitches have gotten nibbles but nos, and I am just as sure as I am for this June piece that they're good ideas. I think I ought to just write them and see what happens. But getting a pile of rejections on the pitch is discouraging enough to kill a piece's appeal in my mind.

My review deadlines are pretty far out at this time, though. Maybe I should spend next week just writing, putting short essays down, one after another.

There's one essay that I really have to write, because it does have a deadline, but I don't remember if it's July or it was April, and maybe the kind person who set the deadline wasn't interested enough in my work to tell me when the deadline passed, and I'm too scared to look at the email to find out for sure. I wanted to finish it by the end of May but that didn't happen. (Hire me! I'm not paralyzed by deadlines at all!)

Otherwise, as hinted above, I'm slowing my pace a little bit on reviewing. The pile of books is getting further out, datewise, and shorter. I'm sneaking in books for my own pleasure instead of reading only for review. Last night I started reading Samuel Beckett's Molloy, and even though that sounds hard, I found it kind of soothing, the rhythm of it and the simplicity of the words. Between January 1 and May 31 I read 57 books. Counting them up helped me realize that it's okay to feel a little fried.

Pitches are landing fairly well, but I am 0/7 on residencies/fellowships/contests this year. And those are just the ones that've been announced. I alternate years for when I feel optimistic and when I feel fed up on residencies/fellowships/contests, so in 2019 I won't apply for flippin' anything because to hell with you and your application fees. And then in 2020 I'll be like "but maybe..." and Hedgebrook will get my money yet again.

Out in the world: 

I reviewed MEM, by Bethany C. Morrow, for Locus. I think this book is going to be part of school curricula in the future, so get in on it now. It's great. 

May's Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) interview was with Sassafras Lowrey, a fascinating writer. 

An interview with me about my short story "C-a-l-l-a-s" went up at Luna Station Quarterly. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Deluded / Inexperienced / Just Really Bad

Last night, after over a week of trying, I finally finished Sean Penn's atrocious debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. It's so terrible that I am numb with horror. As I explained to Matt, my state of mind recalls how I felt watching the first episode of Cop Rock: overwhelmed with the amount of work that had gone into this lotto-ball-tumbler of bad ideas, feeling stricken, astonished, that no one considered how bad, how really really bad, it all was.

If this is the first time you've heard of Cop Rock, it is (rather amazingly) just what it says on the tin: a police drama with many musical numbers per episode. I didn't believe the person who first told me this, but I promise it's true. This is my favorite number

You might already know about me that I am an outright connoisseur of bad film. I love it. I love what it reveals about good film. Plus, occasionally I come upon films that are basically outsider art, delightful in their lack of adherence to conventional cinema--even if the results are (for most people) unwatchable. Bad writing is a slightly different situation. The reason I was reading Sean Penn's book at all is related to some very bad turn-of-the-century writing I'm familiar with, and a feature I'm writing about that similarity. (Stay tuned.) But I learned from my flirtation with that writer of old that bad writing is, for whatever reason, not as easy in the intake process as bad film is.

A lot of people who make bad art are either inexperienced or deluded. A filmmaker like James Nguyen (deluded) sincerely believes he's making good films, because, for whatever reason, he can't see the divide between his camerawork and Hitchcock's. He can't hear that his bad, echoey, overclocked sound is different than the crisp sound of the average dialogue scene in a commercial motion picture. Students I've met who write badly (inexperienced) have not read or written enough to encounter and understand some of the pitfalls of bad prose. They think that certain kinds of metatextual writing are fun and new (when in fact they are neither) because they don't understand what makes that particular metatext cringey and gimmicky instead of profound.

But I can offer no quarter to the makers of Cop Rock. They were highly experienced crafters of television. They had seen and made enough TV to be neither inexperienced nor deluded. And yet, what they made was so bad, a spectacular collision of dumb ideas. That was the root of the stunned sensation I felt during the first episode: I cannot explain this away with my usual analyses of bad art. They went into this with their eyes open and the product is still terrible.

That's close to how I feel about Sean Penn's book. I know that this person has read a lot of books and has done a lot of thinking. And this book is garbage. It's got as many bad ideas as Cop Rock but it adds "lazy" to the pile, which I find unforgivable in a writer. And I don't know how it happened this way. I'm no longer surprised that bad books get published with big money, because I have come to understand how that happens, even for people who have not a sliver of the name recognition Penn has. But I simply can't fathom that this lies behind a man who, for his many faults, never comes across as underprepared or undereducated when I see him at work.

(To be clear, I think Penn should've been cleared off the table decades ago when he was violent toward reporters and allegedly violent toward Madonna; I think he is hilariously pretentious; I don't think his choice of roles is especially interesting across time, except as demonstrations of Hi, Mom, I'm Acting; but I respect that he's particularly good at his job in a crowded field of middle-aged white male actors.)

The above may have been nothing but outtakes from the essay I'm going to write about this awful book. Or early exercises for a novella-length essay I want to write about bad movies. But I am unhorsed about the unfathomable badness of Bob Honey and had to let it out somewhere. Toward the end, I had to sit in the room where Matt was gaming to read it, because I didn't want to read it alone.

Out in the world:

Something hysterical (hysteria in this sense being composed of equal parts fun + anxiety) on Medium. It's no fun to have your favorite stress purchase be suddenly a source of stress.

A tiny memoir piece I wrote appears in issue 5 of Beacon Quarterly, a Portland-based, design-focused (?) magazine. I'm not sure I understand the magazine really at all, but I'm pleased that my words are in it. I saw a PDF, and they treated me well. What I wrote, "Five Stories, Collated," was designated as poetry, which isn't quite right but it's fine if they/you want to read it that way. In a few months, the issue will be free to view digitally, and I'll link to it again then.

My work appears in Tiferet's current issue (spring/summer 2018). It's a "tif," a short piece on the theme of transformation, and I feel it's not of the same weight and caliber as the full-length contributions in this really fine magazine. But I loved writing it - it's an idea I'd wanted to put out in the world for a long time - and I'm proud it's in print. Here's a link to buy a digital copy of the issue, should you desire to.

I reviewed a remarkable book, The Underneath, by Melanie Finn, for sinkhole. I liked working with them a lot - they turned down something weird of mine but assigned me this book instead, and all went well - and I'm already reading a second book for review for them. This book, though. It gave me the opportunity to dig deep about my opinions of New England and its darker side, and I'm grateful.

And I reviewed a writing reference anthology, Credo, for Craft Literary. I did my best to give it a mixed but not unkind review. The book means well, but it's got filler.

I've filed multiple other reviews and a couple of interviews, all soon to come. May ain't over yet.