Thursday, December 29, 2011


So now that I'm fully engaged in the waiting game, I'm not too sure what to do with myself. "Work" for money is not really happening at this time aside from teaching, so I have a lot of time to fill during the day. I watched all of my Christmas present from Matt, all 19 blessed episodes of My So-Called Life, which was actually better than I thought it was at 13, for completely different reasons. (Although Jordan Catalano was no less attractive. God above, that boy.) I found myself surprised at the writing influence of that show; the first few episodes reminded me of the way The Sopranos is written, the sort of psychic circularity of certain concepts (remember the ducks? like that), and the extreme character delving that's done. The last several reminded me of Buffy, what little Buffy I've seen. But now that I've marathoned those 14 or so hours of TV in three days, I'm twiddling my thumbs a little bit. Matt's brother gave me the MST3K Gamera collection for Christmas, but believe me, a little Gamera goes a long way.

The obvious thing is to write. I do have this horror novel that I've been nursing for a few years, but as I mentioned the last time we were together, I'm very uncertain about its direction. I forced a few paragraphs out beyond what I had written the last time I left off, but when I think of it, I feel unsure that I can make it novel-length, that I can fix its major flaws (too much dialogue, not enough events, I like my main character less than my supporting ones), that I seem to have this really obvious pattern for how I write books that isn't necessarily a good way to write books and I'm doing it again and I'm not sure about it. Namely, this is the second book I've done serious work on that has a long section of another piece of media. In the Greenland book, it's a few thousand words of fictional history from the fourteenth century as told by one of my main characters, and in the horror book it's not quite ten thousand words (with no immediate end; I'm still writing it and don't know whether or when to end it) of a diary kept by the antagonist. I don't exactly know where I'm headed and can't gauge if where I've been is any good. Major revisions will be necessary. Whine whine uncertainty whine.

There are a lot of things I'm worried about with this project. This makes it no different, really, than the Greenland book, but for some reason my doubt is no less potent considering I already made it through this process with what I consider moderate success. I wasn't really sure I'd finish the Greenland book and I did; I felt the same "I have no PLOT" panic about that book and I came up with some. Why can't I ditch the insecurity?

Apart from all that, the main reason I haven't really gotten down to business on this horror book, not really, is that I feel like it's too soon to walk away from the Greenland book and head onto another project. I don't know what's giving me this feeling, because I'm not tired, or missing the urge to write, or blocked, or anything like that. It's like swimming; when you're a kid your parents yell and scream endlessly (or at least mine did) about not swimming at any time less than half an hour after you eat. When you grow up, you're better able to judge when you're too full to comfortably swim, or whether it's safe enough (supervised pool, etc.) to take the risk and swim anyway. But you still retain this little yelling voice inside that says no, no, no, don't swim, you'll get a cramp and diiiiiiie!

The conventional wisdom would seem to be that diving back into the waters of another novel so soon after finishing all the work it's possible to do at the moment on the just-done novel is simply a bad idea. Too much Greenland residue, my brain should be plumb wore out, if I get heavily into the horror novel I won't be able to revise Greenland effectively. Some such things. But I honestly don't know what else to do; I don't have any significant ideas for short stories, I have one for an essay but I don't think it's ready yet, I'm not interested in taking any continuing ed classes, and at the moment there are long stretches of every weekday that are unfilled. To plug the space with Netflix feels like I'm not doing my part for the household.

Until my readers get back to me with suggestions (and oh, will Matt be happy when they do - I've already asked him what he thinks they think of it about 400 times when I know that in all probability no one has cracked the spine yet, figuratively or literally), what I can do with my chosen profession during these days is, um, do it. Write. I just can't get rid of the little voice that calls it unwise.

What do you, the viewers at home, think? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Auditioning My [Un]talented Child

Waiting for people to tell you what they think of your work is a special kind of hell, I think, and I can't imagine it's a whole lot more fun for the people who are reading the work. The last time I sent work out to friends was...gosh, two, three years ago? Neither friend ever finished reading what I sent (to my knowledge), after being so enthusiastic about it. One friend read about a third of the material and talked to me in wonderful detail about it, so helpful, and then it dropped off his radar and I never heard about it again. The other friend never got back to me at all.

I'll grant you I was pissed off at the time, but since then I've let go of it. (Oh, how generous of me.) I put myself in their shoes, and imagined having this obligation that I thought was going to be a pleasure, and embarrassing myself by being excited about it and then not getting around to it for days stretching into weeks, and knowing that my friend really, really cared about this thing that I was starting to consider a stone around my neck. What a very yucky feeling. Or, worse, maybe I had read it, and didn't like it, and didn't know what to say; maybe I'd presumed it was going to be a lot better than it was (or at least a lot more polished), and didn't know how to explain that I'd been disappointed.

On my side of the fence there's this beautiful albatross, this beloved child of my typing fingers, and I need to send her out for auditions, so we can find out from an unbiased source whether she has a shot of making it to the big time. To do this, and wait at home for my pretty child to return with a bevy of information about how to improve her weak voice and her droopy tits and then to hear nothing nothing nothing, is torment. But the people in whose hands is the work, it's not their fault. They have a lot of auditions to get through. My albatross is no more important (much less, in fact) than all the other items in their lives. She's my kid, but she's their burden.

If you ever find yourself in this position (I'm substituting myself for any author, here), please know that I want to hear about it if my kid sucks. If you're an early reader, it's not awkward for you to tell me, "Wow, I really thought this would be good, since you spent good years of your youth on it, but it stinks like yesterday's diapers, and here's why." Not awkward. Exactly what me and my kid need to hear, so we can get voice lessons and a boob job and move forward, marching on to Broadway.

(Did that [long-term] metaphor work? I feel like it did, but I'm not sure. See, this is why we need readers.)

The point is, we're both in shitty positions, the author and the readers, and I'm taking this opportunity to acknowledge that I know it. That for me to sit here and bite my nails bloody is no harder than for a reader to look at the manuscript sitting in the corner and know that she has to get back to it eventually. I know that. And what we both need to do is just let it be, calm down and do what's needed (even if what's needed is to walk away and never look back).

Whilst waiting for my dear, dear readers to get with the program finish their extremely difficult task, I've gone back to work on a horror novel I started two winters ago, and it's very slow going swimming back into it again. I don't know if the 30-some thousand words I already have on it are any good. At all. I don't know how to add another 40-some thousand (or more), when the story's pretty simple and I don't have a great deal more plot. Of course, that was my problem during the second half of the Greenland book, too, and now I have too many thousand words. If Matt will once more brainstorm with me and give me exactly the right book to read, I'm sure I'll be fine. Until then I'll flounder on.

In other parts of my life, I continue to cruise along in uncertainty. Christmas approaches. The thing I chose for my homemade gifts this year is by necessity a last-minute thing, so I'm planning to get to work on it tomorrow. There's this little panic critter in my head hollering that I'm running out of time and have nothing prepared and there are so few days left! and I'm having to remember over and over that it's a last-minute thing, I can't prepare any more than I already have. CHILLAX.

That's kind of the leit-motif of this month, actually. When I remember to take that advice, everything's awesome.

Sunday, December 18, 2011


It's Catalog Season in our mailbox, and the other day we received a Hammacher Schlemmer catalog - we probably purchased a single gift from them three years ago or something and are now on their holiday list ad eternium. As is the Schlemmer way, they had a lot of cool stuff in there, but something that particularly caught my eye was a home electrolysis...thing, a little machine about the size of a lady's electric razor that did permanent hair removal after numerous repetitions of swiping the thing over your unsightly body hair.

At first glance, I thought, YES, this is like a zillion times cheaper than salon electrolysis would be, and yes I'd probably have to swipe for several months in a row, but NO MORE SHAVING MY UNDERARMS, thank God, sign me up.

Then I thought about it some more. I thought about the idea of actually having no hair under my armpits. Ever. Again. Or on the tops of my toes; the little golden hairs that have grown there since I was in middle school are deeply humiliating to me (which is why I'm telling the whole internet about them). Or...well, no, those are the only two places that have hair I'd like to be permanently rid of. I'm kind of conservative that way.

The more I thought about it, the more I was bothered by the idea of forever removing that hair. I never let my underarm hair grow out for more than a day or two, in part because I don't like to show hairy pits to my students when I'm teaching and I teach a few times a week. But the idea of it gone forever was very disconcerting.

I think it's because I've never quite reached comfort about the amount of hair removal women are societally requested/required to do, and which I go on and do in order not to be frowned upon in femininity. Every time I see a woman with publicly fuzzy pits, I give her a little mental fist-bump: way to not conform, grrl. I wish I had your fuck-'em-all attitude. But I don't. It's not a step I feel comfortable taking, and that kind of bothers me, that I'm not gutsy enough to let my armpits be what they are and to hell with anyone who'll disdain me for it.

There's always the "I want to be as awesome as Patti Smith" defense.
Which, you know, is a thing.

I can't think of any occasion in the future where I'd want my armpit hair to grow, nor can I think of any kind of life situation I am likely to experience in my remaining years on this planet where I won't regularly "need" [want? have?] to remove it. But that hair is a part of me, the real me who sweats during exertion and gets crud under her toenails and relieves herself via urination and defecation. These are human things, and the way that our society paints over them with obsessive hygiene and creams and powders and soaps and unguents of every possible configuration, consistency, and aroma, is something that I'm often grateful for (on subways, etc.) but I'm also often kind of dubious about. It smacks of a lack of acceptance of our essential humanness, and it leaves us all with a shade of illusion over the bits we most genuinely have in common, for better or worse.

So although there's a big part of me that can only think of how awesome it would be not to have to scrape my armpits raw every day or every couple of days, there's another part that's warning me no. Don't ditch that unsightly hair. Our unsightly parts are the parts that keep us grounded and whole, the parts that prove that under the most expensive perfume and the most perfectly coiffed hairdo, we are still beautiful animals with feet of clay.

Or, as the kids say, everybody poops.

Friday, December 16, 2011


I have a shelf in my bedroom, a "floating" shelf that's screwed into the wall, with room for only a few books. I've had it in some version of my bedroom for a long time, and in every incarnation it's had the same little group of books on it. Holes, Alias Grace, Rebecca, The Light of Evening, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (UK edition). Several others. They're the books that remain important to me year after year, that changed my life the first time I read them and minutely change my life again every time I reread them, that make me stay up too late to read them, that make me feel like the ocean has crashed gloriously on my head when I'm through. Right now I'm in the living room and there's a bookshelf to my left with books that have applied for admission: Travel Light, Fun Home, The Autograph Man, The Brief History of the Dead. But it's a very selective shelf, and I haven't felt right about adding anyone to it in many a moon.

One of the books on that shelf is Bag of Bones, by Stephen King. I was astonished when I was finished reading that book, because it's the only really literary book I think King has written (to date; I haven't read his JFK book), and it's still the book that I think is his best. (Aside from the Dark Tower, I've read all but his two or three most recent.) When I found out a few years ago that the movie rights for it had been sold, I was disappointed, but unsurprised; King properties are likely always going to be sold to Hollywood. But I hoped it would sit in development eternally. For various reasons, I was pretty sure Bag of Bones wouldn't translate to the screen.

Its rhythm is slow, and matched to grief in the way it turns back on itself over and over during the first third, which would just seem mistaken and boring in a film. It has intricate plotting, much more so than any other book of his I can think of, that is too subtle and word-based to move to a more fleeting visual medium. It has its own talismanic sort of language, lots of repetition like wards against evil, and that gets tiresome to listen to when it doesn't to read. It also has a very strong interiority, with the protagonist's thoughts and feelings and imaginings more central to the plot than any real activities he engages in (I think). It's hard to do that interiority in a movie and make it convincing, especially since the majority of adaptations of King's work have been so regrettable.

Yet A&E took it on, and made it into a miniseries (two episodes, three hours), and put it on the air last weekend, and I DVRed it and, last night, watched it. I stayed up too late to do so, and I really should've just put the remote down and gone to bed, because it stank. It was lazy and unsubtle and rushed and unfocused and bad. It made the writer's life look exactly as uninteresting as it is, only with bewildering yelling in the face of writer's block; it stuffed exposition into its cracks like mortar; it changed details that--I'm not saying this in a fanboy kind of way, just in a practical way, I swear--should not have been changed. I'm not laying blame on anybody except the screenwriter and the people who thought it would be a good idea to adapt this book to a motion picture. The cast acquitted themselves as well as could be expected and the direction was...not so terrible. But sheesh, you guys, some books shouldn't be movies. I say that as a better student of film than I ever was or ever will be a student of literature.

All it did was make me want to read the book again, to recapture that ocean-crash feeling and the intimacy I had felt with these characters and this situation, which the adaptation totally failed to replicate. So I went upstairs and I did just that, I took the book off my special shelf and I read all my favorite parts. When I was done, it was two in the morning, and I briefly entertained the idea of staying up all night to read the thing cover to cover. (It's that good of a book, y'all.) I didn't, but I was so relieved that the adaptation hadn't spoiled anything for me. I still heard Mike Noonan's voice the same way I always had (not through Pierce Brosnan), and I still found Sara Tidwell to be too much a phenomenon to really imagine what her voice sounded like. I still thought it was a spooky, wonderful ghost story, way more than a horror story, I still marveled at the literariness of the thing being tumbled through Stephen King's declaratory, up-front, it's-just-you-and-me,-babe style and at how well that combination worked, and I still felt a jolt of unfairness like electrocution at certain aspects of the ending. Like Casablanca, it can't end any other way, but like Casablanca, OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. She can't get on the plane. Maybe this time around it'll end differently. Right? Right? Life can't be that unfair?...FUCK.

That's the stuff I'm looking for out of my books. That's what those books on my little shelf have in common. Whether it's FUCK YES or FUCK NO, it's that frisson that keeps me awake at night that I seek, the thing that makes me read the last sentence over again and say OH YOU MOTHERFUCKING WRITER. I can't believe you've made me feel what I just felt.

As a postscript, one of the most disappointing books I ever read was Lisey's Story. I haven't gone back and read it again since I read it originally, and I'm a serial rereader, especially of King. I expected Lisey to follow on where Bag of Bones left off, literarily at least, and instead it just seemed like a weird mess. I was less compelled, by a factor of about a thousand, by Lisey than I was by Mike Noonan (ironic, since I'm female), and it was one of his [many] books that I think could have used a more ruthless editor. I expected it to be as intimate and as complex as Bones, and I felt it was anything but--it just seemed to rattle on and on without any sense of structure. If I'd read Lisey with lower expectations, or before I'd read Bones, I might have liked it, and if I tried it again now I might like it. But I remember thinking "this is Stephen King's seventh wave?" Just shows that we all have myopia about our own work.

On that note, I wrote 5,000 words yesterday, those two chapters I was whining about, and after honing today I think I'm ready to create a proof of the whole thing. I've already got one reader, a person I trust greatly whose imminent jet lag is a gift to me and a curse to him. Maniacal laugh. Maniacal laugh.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Broken Speedometer

Matt finished his reading of my Greenland book this week. He's the first person to have read the majority of what's in there, and even the experience of hearing him say my characters' names was weird. It's been a private experience to write the thing until now - which has really not been a positive thing - and to suddenly have someone else know what I wrote has been both wonderful and kind of unsettling. He helped me with some minor problems and suggested solutions to some major ones, although so far I've been too lazy to take them. (That's my task for today. Thus far I've accomplished a lot of reading on and this blog post. Well done me.)

On Tuesday into Wednesday I did another read-through and fixed small issues, eliminated a lot of dialogue tags that weren't necessary, and looked for the right place to incorporate the one new scene Matt suggested. He also advised me to rewrite the ending and gave me a context for a new one that is probably better than the one I have, but I'm very reluctant to do that because of how much fun I had writing the current one. When those changes are completed, I'm planning to wheedle help from some more friends. (Some of whom are likely reading this. You poor saps.) I think what I'm going to do is print the book as a private project on Lulu, order five or six paperback copies, and send them out that way. It'll be a lot easier for my unlucky friends to read than a honking great sheaf of paper, and while I don't think I'll actually save money on paper and toner cartridges (although I might), it'll be simpler and easier to ship.

Technology, man. Can you imagine when I would have had to type carbons? Egh. The very thought of it makes me queasy.


I told Matt yesterday that I think my anxiety-meter is broken. If you'd told me six months ago that my life would be situated the way it is, with so little security and so much chaos and every day bringing new uncertainties, I would have fainted dead away and had a panic attack upon awakening. But I've got this eerie new confidence, not only that things are going to be okay but that they're going to work out the way they ought to (whatever that way may be), that in the meantime we'll manage, and that all the things that appear to be obstacles are really just smoke and mirrors. I told him I thought my anxiety-meter, previously such a source of terror and heartache, was now like a broken speedometer; no matter how much I gun the ignition, how fast things may be hurtling by outside the windows, the needle rests patiently at zero. (Incidentally, in this metaphor, I'm driving a kickass Chevelle Super Sport.) I am imperturbable. It's kind of like the beginning of Office Space, when thanks to that shrink, Peter is just...chill...about his workplace all of a sudden.

Maybe I'm just mentally ill. Maybe someone's been feeding me Quaaludes. But I'll take it, you know, it's a zillion times better than the awful scratching anxiety, which makes the inside of my head sound exactly like this all the time. It means I can write, and sleep, and devote real energy to teaching my yoga classes. I don't really need to know exactly how fast I'm going.

Monday, December 12, 2011

(It Doesn't Have Anything to Do with Buddhism)

The other night, I finished a book called Zazen, by Vanessa Veselka. I found it via The Rumpus, a site that, from this perspective, is so much immersed in the literary life in the San Francisco area that it's a little myopic. However, it's helped me to learn that there exists an underground literary scene here in this country, and I read Zazen in part to find out what that scene is like. (The book reviews on the site also led me to a book called The Postmortal, on which I gave up a third of the way through because I couldn't sleep after reading it. Like Feed, which gave me waking nightmares for months on end, only not as succinct.)

I knew before I read this book that I was not likely to be a part of this scene, not now or ever; I'm not an experimental writer, and my few attempts to imitate edgy po-po-mo fiction have resulted in work that's so disconnected from my instincts that I don't even know if it's any good. Now I'm certain: this scene is not for me, and this type of work is not really for me, either. I enjoyed reading Zazen enough to leave it on my Amazon wish list, because I'd like to refer back to it and maybe read it again in the future, but I didn't really understand the mechanisms of the fiction as I was reading it. It was an artifact from another land.

Veselka is a fascinating writer, with intelligence burning like a gas flame under every word, incredible metaphors, and gorgeous, hard-hitting sentence-by-sentence craft. The book was kind of like an octopus in my mind, tentacles worming their way in and clinging and dragging me in, so that my face was right up close to the book's bizarre world, and I had to take the time to get re-tendriled into that world if I took a break before reading on. It reminded me of two other books: Beloved, by Toni Morrison (in the way that time and space were not very well-described but I still had a solid sense of place), and more strongly The Open Curtain, by Brian Evenson, which is probably the most unnerving book I've ever read. Madness lurks in the basement of that book, and the experience of reading it is a little like going mad yourself; the world kept tilting, gradually, as I was reading until I'd look up from the book and it would take a moment for everything to right itself again. Zazen resembles but doesn't resemble the world I know now, so it was like diving into a different dimension every time I opened it again. The narrator is plainly not all there, or perhaps too much there, and seeing her world through her was uniquely effective and a little frightening.

Yet the book was so poorly copy-edited that I kept being un-immersed in frustration every chapter or so to try and figure out what the author meant through the errors. You always end up wondering, if there's poor copy-editing, what else might have been better served by more attention to the text - what else the author and editors missed in the proofs. And there was so much about the book that I found unclear. Some of the metaphors extending from chapter to chapter were too obtuse for my middling non-underground intelligence, and eventually I had to accept that I couldn't quite know the order of events - during the first third or so we kept skipping around in time (I think) without clear markers. I also found the politics of the book to be sort of screamy. There was a lot of ranting that I think the book endorsed rather than merely presenting. I'm quite a bad activist, because I like my art carefully partitioned from my politics, with only little leaks along the wall. Any relationship more intimate and you wind up sacrificing the quality of one or the other, I've found. Most political artists would disagree (naturally), but if I am opposed to the politics of the art, I have a harder time enjoying the art on its merits instead of dismissing it altogether, and that dismissal isn't fair. It's an unpleasant paradigm.

I think that people who write and read in this style of literature regularly would either accept these things or treat them as part of the art. Vagueness, in particular, seems to be a facet of edgy/literary fiction that is well-celebrated but that I personally never enjoy. And I think they find frustrating or opaque books to be that much more arty and interesting, finding the shining diamond edges more compelling than the mud which sometimes surrounds them. I always ask why the mud couldn't just be cleared away. And I think that's why experimental lit isn't for me.

Still. It was a good idea to stretch outside my usual fare, to see what's possible out there in west coast fiction. And like I said, I really enjoyed the experience of reading the book. I just know I don't want to restrict my reading to that kind of book (too cerebral, too much of a project), and I doubt I'll ever write a book like it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Married to the Martyr

A few weeks back, I went to a midnight screening of the fourth Twilight film with a friend of mine. I'm not much of a Twi-hard, because I think the books are pretty godawful and the universe is pretty problematic. (Not getting into that right now, Dracula-type fans.) But I find it an interesting cultural artifact, I enjoy some of the laughably terrible dialogue and presentation, and I'm a complete sucker for the appealing way [certain aspects of] sex and romance are presented in the movies.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 troubled me in a way the rest of the movies didn't. When I got over my midnight-movie hangover, I wrote an essay explaining why. I sent it to Slate (for Double X) and to Salon, but neither one of them was interested, so instead the whole internet gets it for free. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

At Long Last, a Labor of Love

Enough, I say, I have called a halt. The polish draft (i.e. silver, not i.e. Warsaw) is completed, and I'm giving it to my husband to read.

I worked stupid hard to bring this about, ignoring most else that was supposed to be going on. Looking back on the last week, I'm reminded of the way it is to be around my mom when she's working - or used to be, when I was a kid. She'd say "just a few more minutes" and then get lost in whatever it was she was doing, so I'd end up waiting about twice as long as I expected to wait for her (usually it was something like 10 minutes instead of 5 minutes, so not criminal, but oh, bothersome). I totally did this to Matt a bunch of times in the last few days, telling him I just needed a few minutes to get through a chapter and then finding I had to go on to the next one to figure out whether it all hung together. So he'd wait a while and then just fix breakfast himself. And I felt guilty. But it's all over now, the draft is polished, that first closed-door draft is retooled and ready for a reader. Throughout all of it, I only lost a few paragraphs of work, and easily redid them. No computer disasters so far. (nok nok)

Many other things have happened in the last week. The job situation in our house is...weird. I've taken a part-time paralegal job, although I'm not positive it's going to move forward in exactly the way I expect. Everything has been changing from day to day around here lately, so tomorrow I could have some brand-new bit of news that means I won't need the job, or will need an even higher-paying job, or we're moving to Mars. (Dr. Manhattan might need an assistant?) My personal situation notwithstanding, I think I've finally figured out, for good and all, what I want my job to be. I want to be a writer.

Oh, golly, big news, Katharine. Shocking and surprising. Yeah, well, hear me out.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Benjamins

This past week, I've been using the A&E version of Pride & Prejudice to reward myself, in half-hour increments, for my work editing the book,  and this time around I noticed something very sly about it. My understanding is that part of the reason Austen's work is important is that she reimagined the rules and reasons for marriage; a love match was a lot less common than a money-match in those days, and for Lizzy to wish to marry someone for love, just because, was laughable in its presumption. Dowries and connection and heirs, that was where it was at, and if you loved your spouse as well, sheesh, did you ever luck out.

But here's the thing. Mr. Darcy pays in the neighborhood of £10,000, in 1813's pounds (see here and text-search 10,000 for an explanation of roughly what this meant), in order to discharge Mr. Wickham's debts and convince him to accept Lydia Ninnia for his bride. Had Mr. Bennet had that money, he would have been the proper person to give it over to Wickham. Darcy then marries Lizzy for virtually no dowry at all.

Due to the discretion of all involved, Mr. Bennet was insensible to the trade inherent here, but I'm not: Darcy paid that £10,000 for a bride. He skirted having Mr. Bennet's hands on the money at all, granted, and the money functioned as a way of showing Lizzy how decent he was rather than being an obvious payment for services rendered, but it's still money-for-wife at the bottom of it.

As I understand, the trade usually went the other way, with a father having to pay a stack of sterling to a gentleman to take his worthless daughter off his hands. But I can't believe that Austen didn't do this on purpose, having Lizzy desire (unconsciously?) to pay Darcy back with her hand for his help. Everything was set to rights that way.

Perhaps all would have been explained to me if I'd studied Austen above the high school level. But, alas, my degree functions to help me appreciate the positive qualities in the motion picture versions rather than the depth of the text. Oh, well. The pleasures of the A&E version are well worth it, and I suppose that's what master's degrees are for, in any case.

Friday, December 2, 2011

From Pebbles, a House

I read in Slate this morning that there are no fewer than four first-time novelists on the New York Times Best Books of 2011. The article's thrust is the fact that Stephen King, he of the "penny dreadfuls" (oh, Harold Bloom, you wretched snob), was also on the list for the first time in his long career. But the thing that gave me food for thought during my shower was the first-time novelists. Why did 2011 spawn so many unusually good ones, according to the Times?

I have a theory. Publishing is a harder business than it used to be, on all sides of the desk. One of the elements that I think has grown more difficult is getting a publisher to look at diamonds in the rough from the slush pile, work that could be great and could allow a novelist to grow further in a second and third book, but is still a run-of-the-mill first novel as yet. I'd suggest that now, in order to sell that first novel, your work has to be perfect, polished and gleaming and flawless, before a publisher is going to take a chance on it. Not enough hours in the week for an average editor to spend time shaping the average first novel into something saleable. So, by that logic, any first novels that are published are bound to be in the top of the heap of novels written in general. And that's why those four made it onto the list.

Maybe not. Maybe the Times' book editors just took a few extra pinches of snuff this year.

Every now and then, when I'm reading along in a book, I'll come up short against something that takes me out of the book and makes me question myself as a reader. The text will mention some incident that I don't remember being a part of the book, and then I have to go back and look for it and be puzzled when I can't find it, or will repeat something about a character that I remembered quite well enough that I'm not sure why it bears repeating. Inconsistencies with the experience of reading, I guess you'd call them. These always bothered me - how could it be so hard to remember that you'd never explained that one thing?

In the process of editing my now-91,000-word manuscript (over halfway done in terms of pages, but a good bit more writing and shaping to do in the pages ahead), I finally begin to see how this could happen. I have to keep the whole thing in my head at once, including all the changes I've made, the things I put in and took out and moved around, and remember all the internal reactions that every character has ever had, along with knowing all their personalities well enough to know exactly what they would do or say, and determine whether I'm being too subtle or not subtle enough (which is highly subjective, if you're me), and how much is too much in terms of tone and censorable content, and where exposition crosses the line from necessary to TMI, and gaaaaaaah. It's enough to drive me bonkers. And if I take a day's breather (as I'm seriously considering doing today), I risk losing what familiarity I have with it all and may have to read skimmingly through the whole thing again before I can start where I was.

There are so many levels to editing a text this big, from word choice in any one of the ninety-one thousand to the grand arc of the plot. And everything in between: is this chapter too long? Am I telling enough of the story from Rose's point of view, or is it too focused on Jackson? Do I have too many sentences that begin the same way? Why did I invent these two conniving sisters and then have neither of them do anything?

Plus, I don't think I appreciated what I was getting into in terms of constructing a world that's totally isolated from modern society, with its own language and culture, but which is nevertheless derived from a real ancient culture that's extremely well-studied. The word I would use when I stand back from it is "ambitious", although I know that's an arrogant thing to say about something I wrote myself. From the first-person perspective it's just overwhelming.

There's a little bit of good news, though, about the text. Yesterday I was in the middle of the slog and I just--couldn't--take it--anymore--so I decided to do the first draft of the glossary. It was sort of a menial task compared with the rest of what I've been doing, so I no longer had to think about all the big stuff. This was a really good decision, because it perked me right up; in defining all the words, including breaking the verbs down to their roots from the conjugated versions, I saw that I had actually, like, invented a language.

It doesn't have a very large vocabulary, because I only invented the words I needed to and I didn't see the point of having characters talk on and on in Luquenora to the exclusion of the reader (a-HEM, Victorian writers who use French everywhere), but still - the conjugations do actually function, the pluralization rule is interesting and coincides with the add-a-bead structure of the nouns, and basically, I really actually made a language. All this time I'd been building it with little pebbles, as I was writing, a word here and there and a rule made up suddenly and applied backwards, and I looked up at it yesterday and voila, there was a house.

I still have a zillion questions about it - such as whether every word in Luquenora needs to be italicized (as I have it now), and if so, whether this applies to when people are referred to in Luquenora words as if they're proper names. For example, riahmn, which means father; should that be italicized when Eliza's saying, "Let's go into the house, Riahmn"? I think no, but I really have no idea. There's all kinds of stuff like that. It's so hard to know.

It's especially difficult to work through little things like this when I have the pressure of knowing this novel has to be a perfect shiny diamond in order to get any attention from an agent or a publisher when it's finally ready for those eyes. Otherwise, how will I ever end up on the New York Times Top Ten list?

(See, I brought it all full circle. Maybe I'm not so bad at the big picture, after all.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


I killed a darling yesterday. I worked all day long (with a few breaks, of course), from about 10:00 to about 9:00, reworking the first third of the novel. As I went through the paper draft a few days ago, I drew brackets to mark spots where the writing was sound, but would probably have to be integrated elsewhere. I managed to preserve many of these spots, but discarded several others upon reflection. When I had to delete pieces like this from the electronic draft in order to make sense of what I was writing, I kept the physical page (otherwise I've put the prior-draft physical pages in the recycle bin to cut down on the clutter), so as to retain what I thought was good, ill-fitting work.

One page stuck around through the whole day's work, with a few sentences on it that I really didn't want to let go of. It was a darling. The Fictator mindset has helped me be more merciless with my darlings throughout my writing process in the last months, but this one just didn't want to go. I read it again and again, this little passage, and genuinely could not find a place for it in the sixty pages or so I edited today. So, finally, when I was setting aside the manuscript for the day and hitting play on Pride & Prejudice (I have a book to read before it's due on Friday, but I just couldn't look at any more words), I read it one last time, and then chucked it into the recycle bin. Goodbye, darling dear, I had to murder you.

I can't even express how useful the Fictator-hat has been in the course of all this. For the majority of my life I've been a reactionary, not wanting to let go of things that are past, whether old books, old pictures pulled out of magazines that used to be pasted on my wall, old knowledge and ways of life (it's why I learned how to can preserves), old slang. I value the past and its quirks and turns, and I believe we can always benefit from its existence, even if it's just learning something like the fact that teen-pop groups have been assembled by heartless record executives at least as far back as the sixties. At any rate, the same reactionary attitude always went for my writing - if it wasn't preserved exactly as it was first concocted, with changes only for grammar and awkwardness, its value was diminished.

Of course in writing this is foolishness. It's the way of editing to throw out reams of work and start all over, to tinker and alter until maybe what you have barely resembles what you started with. I had so much trouble with this until I began approaching my work as if it was mine, not something that had already been conjured up by the Muses in the Creativity Dimension and transmitted to me for transcription. Until I started thinking of myself as the Fictator, the person who has all the rights and powers to decide what will stay and what will go, I felt hampered and hostile about the editing process.

Now I'm much freer, and less afraid. Words are cheap, is the thing. A good paragraph is easy. There are a hundred ways I can write any given conversation. There's no guarantee that what I've thrown out won't end up being better than the newly-written stuff, but the old stuff doesn't have inherent value just because it was my first idea. This isn't the SATs; the first answer isn't always (likely) the right one. Besides, I save versions. Nothing is really lost.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"I knew I wanted to be a novelist"

Got a rejection from The Sun over the weekend. Not terribly surprising; it's a very difficult market. I really believed in this essay, but hey, I'll just try again somewhere else. Que sera, sera.

I'm hard at work on the first edit of my book, and it's slow going. Every word is accompanied by uncertainty. And often there are cascading changes that have to happen - if I change one thing, fourteen other things have to change on down the line. But I have a vision of everything hanging together, of it all making sense, and oh, it's beautiful.

In my day-to-day life, it's rough. I still haven't started paid work for the company that hired me nearly four weeks ago, and if things don't change in the next 48 hours I'm going to have to give up the dream and do something else. Having been at home for a month, I am so loath to go back to the outside world - it's so nice in here, with all my stuff, all the safety and happiness of home and sweatpants. But I am feeling 200 pounds of guilt on my shoulders, moving around with it every moment, that I'm not contributing my part of the income to make our household run. We can't live without me making an income, and I can't live with the guilt of that for longer than a few days more, even if circumstances keep appearing that they're going to change any day now.

I admit to being sort of captivated by the vision of this, writing, being my job. Plenty will scoff and say that what I've been up to isn't hard work, and I'll grant you that I haven't had my nose to a grindstone, exactly (or I would have opened up my working draft and gotten to it by now this morning) but what I figured out here still holds, that when I do put in a workday on the fiction, it's hard. Not to be sniffed at.

A few weeks ago I read an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, whose epic book Middlesex I was alone in not enjoying, but whose earlier book The Virgin Suicides I liked a great deal. The interviewer asked him if he had a lack of direction during the years after college, and he said he had direction "because I knew I wanted to be a novelist". He went on, but I got stuck on this phrase, I knew I wanted to be a novelist. As if  "novelist" was a professional career you could just decide to do, get enough training and experience and have that be your job. Like being a lawyer, or an electrician.

There seemed to be such naivete wrapped in this phrase of his. Like he wouldn't be hampered by people who didn't like his work enough, or have to pay any bills while he was writing the first novel that sold. Like the capacity to be a novelist doesn't depend on anything except your decision to do it. I see the field of writing fiction as one from which only fools and angels attempt to make a living; if you can't get into the gate, if no publisher likes what you've done, you don't have a living. You have nothing. Nothing but work that's not good enough, a dream that won't come true, and bills.

But the thing is: he became a novelist. He found success. I don't know the story of it; maybe he worked really hard and was good enough, maybe he had a friend who had a friend who had an agent, maybe he made a deal with the devil. The point is, he wasn't naive. He was correct. Novelist is his career.

I've been using the word "writer" when thinking of the career I want to build. I already am a writer; I've had things published in print media and been paid for my work with the written word. It's not what I do on a full-time basis, but I think that calling myself that isn't trespassing. But to me the word "novelist" implies vocation, professionalism. And striving for that, calling my desired career "novelist" - without all the equivocations involved in "writer", since textbook authors and short story authors and people who create content for spam blogs can all fairly be termed "writer" - seems like a firmer choice, one that feels more accurate to what I want to do. I don't think I'm a particularly good writer of short stories, but I think the longer stuff I've written is better, so it's a more comfortable fit anyway.

But I'm not a novelist yet. I may be a writer, by hook or by crook, but novelist isn't something you can be until you've been paid for work that's bound and sold at a store. At least, that's the way I see it. I don't know what Eugenides would say.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


For the last couple of weeks, I've been waiting to start an at-home job, one which I hoped would solve several of our problems at once. But my start date was delayed, and then delayed again, and then delayed a third and fourth time. So I started to worry, like crazy, that in fact it wasn't going to work out, that I would have to return to the outside world and legal work. But I got some solid data about it yesterday: yes, I was actually hired; yes, the work does exist (even if it doesn't really exist this week). There is a big IT transition going on, which is the reason for all the delays, and that means that there might not be much to be paid for in the first couple of weeks. But it seems real enough, the job and my ability to do it. I think - I hope - that it's going to work out all right. There are things about it that aren't as...solution-oriented as I thought they would be, but I'm going to hope for the best. This is the third time this year that things have turned around at my blackest point of despair, and each time was accompanied by a spate of new ideas and greater hope for the future.

In other phew-related news, I did a complete read-through and first skinning of the novel. (It took me about seven hours, all told, which is not encouraging moving forward.) Oh, my dear Lord, what work I have to do. I have to rewrite and rework the whole opening, two or three chapters, and I suspect I'm going to end up adding another quarter of its length to the danged thing in new scenes and greater depth. But inconsistencies were helpfully apparent on this read, and I wrote them all down in the margins with my red pen, making notes on the backs of pages. Now it's on to write a detailed timeline and adjustment of ages, events, and spacing as needed. I also have to come up with a few more names and vocabulary, and start writing a sensible Luquenora glossary. I had suspected that I'd need to put an actual glossary in the back of the book, and yeah, on this read I determined that I do. Feels kind of like a failure, that I didn't make the language clear enough. Oh, well.

Yesterday I finished up editing a story I'd written and submitted it to a publication that's probably way over its head. (I made up my mind to reach for better publications in the future, to just grip writerly arrogance by the neck and continually presume I'm better than I am, so that eventually I'll become better. ...I think I'll write a whole post on this conflict another time.) The story was inspired by something in yoga class, as I mentioned a while back, but what's interesting to me is that the story in its finished form has no reference at all to its inspiration.

I was lying in savasana and the teacher came to give me a little thai-massage head-rub, and I used my neck muscles to "help him" lift my head. This is not helpful to the masseuse, as he needs you to be untense to give you a decent massage, and he whispered "Relax."

This gave me the idea for a story about a woman in this exact position whose reception of "Relax" was to remember a date-rapist whispering this to her as he did the deed. (Am I the cheeriest writer you know, or what?) After I thought through the story a few times, it became a man with this memory, and then I added some other elements and had a pretty good setup and conflict, I thought. I still had the yoga class in there as a framing device for the first few drafts, but when I came back to the story a few days later, it didn't fit. At all. Just cluttered up the raw experience of this poor character. I wanted to add more about him and his situation, but I wasn't writing a novel, just a little story, so all the fat got excised.

It's still really interesting to me that all elements relating to the inspiration for the story got tossed. I'm pleased with my results, but where it came from would be really convoluted, were I asked to explain.

I've been listening to Joanna Newsom almost exclusively for the last 24 hours, while I read and edited and worried over my new job. She has this strange ability to make you forget that there are other kinds of music than her own. Her music is so indubitably odd that you wouldn't think she'd have this quality. But it all seems so normal after a few spins, the harp, the voice, the symphonic construction, the appallingly poetic lyrics. What would you even need an electric guitar for?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

And Opera for All

On Monday last I went to Lucia di Lammermoor at the Kennedy Center. I hadn't seen the opera before, and although it turned out I'd heard more than one of the arias, thanks to movies, I didn't really know what it was about. I like to enter plays/movies/books/whatevers this way, without knowledge, because it means I wind up being surprised by their pleasures, and rare is the piece that requires foreknowledge. (Some movies in recent years have obviously been written as if the audience member already knows certain things about it, or has seen the trailer, and I find this weak art.)

In this case I'm especially glad. Had I known that "the mad scene" in the opera (act III, scene 2), was so famous, or had meant so many different things to so many singers and critics and stage directors, I would have been waiting for it the whole time. As it was, I enjoyed the rest of the opera just as much. The staging was ooky and fascinating: the sets were chilly and rundown, like a Victorian orphanage; Enrico was played as a balls-out sadistic psycho creeper, whose interest in his sister was...not so brotherly; and Lucia herself was girlish and easily sympathized with.

And the opera was so beautiful. The theme of my life right now is melodrama, it's coming at me from all corners and I'm forced to think critically about it, and this was another example. Thus far every opera I've seen has been melodramatic, with emotions and situations blown all out of proportion, stretched and lengthened and belabored for two or three hours. So I suspect it's kind of a tendency of opera in general, melodrama. I find it easy to understand why opera is disliked by so many, because the way characters waffle back and forth between really silly emotions, singing on and on about them with such verve and concentration when the spectators are already so over it, is a particular set of demands on an audience that not everyone can set aside for the sake of the enjoyment to be had.

But I can. I kind of love how intensely every emotion is felt, even if it's kind of really overbaked. It's like entering a world where life doesn't seem so small, and emotions aren't the things you process and put away in order to go about your business. Everything is about the emotions. It's overblown, but it certainly validates the feelings that the music stirs in your own heart.

And the soprano who portrayed Lucia, Lyubov Petrova, was well and truly capable of stirring up astonishing feelings. She was so glorious that I very much wanted to go back again for another three hours at shocking expense to see her sing again. She was strong even at the very highest notes, and she was always singing, never screaming. She gave me chills. And her face was as expressive as her voice. After the mad scene, Lucia wound up standing on a chair with her arms raised in a "Touchdown!" posture, laughing through her madness, and poor Lyubov had to stand there for probably six or seven minutes through the clamor of applause that would not stop. She transfixed me, utterly.

(Here she is in Romeo and Juliet. It gives you a good idea of her voice, although her shocking range isn't fully in evidence there.)

The performance also featured a glass harmonica during the mad scene. My understanding is that Donizetti originally intended the aria to be accompanied by this instrument, but was talked out of it, and I'm here to tell you that although the flute arrangement is likely easier to perform, it does not compare to the eerie, unworldly effect of the glass harmonica. Recordings of it are simply not the same. I really felt like there was something wrong with the sound when I was hearing it, and it seemed to be floating from nowhere - I couldn't at all tell where in the room it was being played. (Supposedly, players of and listeners to the instrument have gone crazy due to its weird sound, and I'm surprised to find that there's actually a reason for the effects I noticed.)

I have tried to listen to recordings of opera to enjoy it. It's unlikely that every opera I want to see is going to be performed convenient to my location during my lifetime, and so I really should be able to accept opera on CD as the best thing I can manage. But I didn't enjoy it at all. I was bored. Something about seeing the people on stage utterly changes the way I consume opera, makes me totally mesmerized. I know it's partially because I'm seeing humans, in the flesh, do something extraordinary, reaching heights of beauty and ability that belong in the space capsule to represent our species to the rest of the universe. I can see and hear them breathe before they let go of that extraordinary note, and while it may seem obvious that they have to breathe, it's still kind of a miracle to me to witness it. They're alive, standing right there, reaching out to me through their talent.

Something else like this happens during the curtain call. The mask of the character is set aside, and the incredible evil of Enrico vanishes to leave this very nice-looking opera singer smiling and bowing at our applause. That's a relief, and a pleasure. It's so satisfying to applaud that man for his good work, and to see that he's just a man, after all, even if he has a capacity to sing that I'll never have. It's not something I get to do for a recording, and it's a shame, because I feel so much more distant from the music.

I chatted with the guy sitting next to me before the show started, and I mentioned I'd seen Figaro done by the Annapolis Opera. He asked me if it was any good, and I told him I thought it was great, but I really couldn't tell him if it was actually great. "I'm not a critic," I said. "I just like it." Since I can't help but keep my critic hat on for the area of my life where I consume the most media (film), and it hampers me from blind enjoyment a lot of the time, I'm really happy not knowing a damn thing about opera. Except that I like it. I love it.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Long, Long Exhale

At 84,719 words, I have called a halt: I am finished with my Greenland novel.

Any writers reading this are probably snorting back laughter. Well, no, it isn't finished. It will take me probably half a year of editing and rewriting, resting and attacking again, before I can consider the book finished. And of course my inner philosophy major is asking whether a creative work can ever really be finished when the potential for different character arcs and repaired comma splices will always exist.

But I have written the last paragraph. I have wrapped up all the ends. It's over.

I don't actually remember when I first had the idea for this book. It might even have been before I moved back to Maryland in 2005. But I wrote the first 25,000 words or so in 2007. That was four years ago. The amount of time I've actually spent putting words on the page probably amounts to less than six months all told (a great deal less, probably), but I'm greatly accustomed to thinking of this book as an albatross - as something I don't know how to finish, and which has sat unfinished for so long that I despair of it. But now it's done. It's really done. I can't wrap my mind around it.

It looks at this time like I won't have anything to do with my day, so I'm trying to figure out what I should do. There's a story that I wrote enough days ago (and with enough Greenland words between then and now) that it might be ripe for revision. There's laundry, and e-mails, and administrative junk that I could do. Or I could go back to what I wrote in Greenland for the last week or so, while it's still malleable, and reshape it. I think I have to come at the big stuff fresh - did I really need all sixteen of those subplots in the last forty pages? - but the little stuff, the way things are worded and the Luquenora words I need to invent, I could get on that.

Conversely, I'm also tempted to do absolutely nothing relating to words (...after I'm finished writing this post) at all today. Maybe watch TV instead. I've put down about 20,000 words in the last week, not counting the blog or my non-creative endeavors. I could, maybe, take a break. Step awaaaay from the laptop.

But that's not really me. I'm not a compulsive writer, certainly, but I couldn't even wait until lunchtime to open up this window and plunk down my thoughts about the insane amount of writing I did yesterday.

I think I'll take the middle way, and just read. I'm in the middle of a terrific book by Joan Aiken. And if I happen to doze off, so much the better; I'm going to a midnight show tonight of...uh...a Bergman film (certainly not this, I don't know what you're talking about), and I would like to not be insanely tired tomorrow.

Champagne and expensive cheeseburgers on Friday. To celebrate. When I finally believe that I'm finished, I'll be so relieved that I won't even want to start my next book.

Yay me! 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Exhaustive Creativity

Yesterday I worked, doggedly, on the Greenland novel, stopping only for food, Freecell, and Facebook breaks (and, yeah, obsessively checking the comments on my Escapist article), and I wrote about 7,000 words. I had hoped to get in 10,000, to get up over 80,000 words total, but I was utterly pooped by 10:00, so I just went to bed.

This morning I woke up wondering what, exactly, made me so tired. Why did 7,000 words of fiction coming out of my brain, into my fingers, and onto the page exhaust me? I can write a blog post about a third that length without batting an eye, usually just with the effect of feeling refreshed that all that information is set forth and no longer rattling about in my head. I felt a little whiny and foolish that I was so tired after sitting on the couch with my laptop all day, but really, I was. I felt hollowed out. This led me into wondering whether you can measure the work of creative endeavor, whether comparing the sleep depth of dock workers and fiction writers would yield any interesting results, whether the complaints of those who invent for a living can be taken seriously against those of, say, maids.

I, for one, didn't sleep particularly well. When I woke up, little snatches of the plot I'd written yesterday were floating in my mind like algae, nothing ordered or helpful, just flotsam. They kept re-cycling through my thoughts in an annoying way - yes, I've already thought about you, can't we just lie here and enjoy the soft bed?

For the last week, there's been a weird multi-phasic quality to my life: feeling as if I'm either living totally by rote, or standing outside and watching myself live, or feeling like the people I meet are just an extension of the dream I'm having and aren't external to me at all, or actually existing in the moment so vividly that I feel Sartrean. It's like being edited, like going from camera angle to camera angle.

I'm pretty sure this freakiness is because I'm daily immersing myself into a thoroughly fictional world. I think the overwhelming opera I went to on Monday night, the surreal fact of being in The Escapist and having people I don't know actually read and remark upon what I have to say, and the fact that at the moment I'm not going to work and coming home every day as I have been accustomed to do for such a long spate of years, contribute to the effect.

But I wanted this post to be about the work of creative endeavor, and whether squeezing too much fiction out of your brain means that you wind up with an empty tube, without two wits to knock together. Is it fair to call it exhausting? Is it on the same level as manual labor, just entailing a different kind of tired at the end of the day? Do different kinds of creative work have different effects? I often feel not exactly tired, but satisfied, after I work on nonfiction; I'm ready to quit putting words on the page for a while, but I don't feel - as I felt last night - that even composing a sentence to say aloud to Matt is just too damn hard.

I'd love to know what people who do other creative work all day think. Advertising writers, art directors, etc. Doing activity of any kind for a day's work can be tiring, I don't care what you do, but feeling as empty as I did last night - is that normal?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Open Up the Spumante

Two big big pieces of writing news today. And I thought today I was going to get to write a leisurely post about the opera I saw last night. HA.

First: I cracked 70,000 words on the Greenland novel this morning. I'll give you a moment as you stagger back from your monitor with your hand clutching your heart.

In all seriousness, this is a book that I've never been sure I'd finish, the idea was so ambitious and weird, and now I'm rounding third on it. There's an obstacle course, with tires and a chain-link ladder and a mean drill sergeant and everything, between me and home plate, but now I know, as I've never really known before, that I'm going to get there.

Second, and MORE IMPORTANTLY: The big news I couldn't talk about last week is, well, this. My essay on Sleep No More was accepted, and now has been published, in The Escapist. Ordinarily I would downplay my excitement about being published in an internet magazine, but as far as gaming magazines go, they don't get a whole lot better than The Escapist. They were a good enough source for the Washington Post to quote them the other day about Skyrim.

I am excessively pleased. And I think the essay came out really damn well, too, one of the few that I consider has said exactly what I wanted it to say. I had a good editor who narrowed my field a bit, which I chafed at, but ultimately she was quite right.

Come back soon for that post on opera, y'all. I promise I'll write it. Aren't you lucky?

Friday, November 11, 2011

Bread and the Old Wine and Dine

Last Sunday, I had an interesting experience.

I have been a spiritual person since teenagehood, choosing to believe that God has a place and a hand in my life, but I have never been a religious person. I can count the number of times I've been to church in my life without using my toes. I believe religions tend to twist God to their ends, or restrict God to the limits of their own worldview - even the well-meaning ones do this last, I believe - and I don't understand why people are content to hear about God through others, rather than experiencing God for themselves. A few years ago I met some devout and lovely Presbyterians who explained that church is a community built around God, rather than a channel for communing with God. The community aspects of church in their lives are just as important as the God aspects (I think, if I'm not putting words in their mouths). This certainly helped me understand church, but I still didn't think I could get beyond the ritualistic and the God's what I say he is and nothing else aspects of any given church in order to worship somewhere outside my head. (I often think of a Sunday School scene in the Simpsons, when the teacher, who has asked them to draw pictures, pauses by Ralph's desk and says "Ralph, Jesus did not have wheels." I say Jesus could have wheels if you wanted him to. He's Jesus, he's everything to everyone, right?)

I have read, all over the place, that church for people who don't like church is embodied in the Unitarian Universalist church, which is open to people of all faiths and not very traditionally churchy. I have been recommended to this church in the past, but I resisted it because I didn't see the point. I am happy with my faith in God as it stands, and I don't really want to add another to-do to my weekend. Especially not if it means dressing up in church clothes and listening to someone I don't know and don't necessarily trust talk about faith, which to me is a highly personal topic.

In the past couple of months, I have experienced big emotional upheaval. I have done a lot of thinking and a decent amount of what I guess you could call praying. (I don't really think of it that way, as it's not on my knees and it's not to Jesus.) I have been unsure of what the universe wants from me and for me, and I've felt shaken, uncertain that life has the order and logic that I had thought it had. Maybe it's all just chaos, and we're trying to make sense out of it because that's what human brains do, they try to find patterns in places where there really is no pattern.

I started thinking that maybe the way to feel solid ground under me again was to go to church, to see if something would happen, if a thunderclap would help me figure out what I was supposed to do or if there was just something in the sermon that would speak to me. Maybe there were seeds to be planted. Maybe there were people who could help. Who knew? I was reaching, deeply in need, and I figured that people who reach have found help in religion for many centuries; it might work for me, too.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Things Are Happening

Yesterday I started work on a story at about 1:00, and although I took time off in between to eat, watch pieces of Office Space, go to yoga class, and fuck around on the internet, I was still working at about 9:30. I'm not very happy that it took me so many hours to produce 4,000 words in draft form, but I guess it's better than producing nothing at all. I'm kind of beating my fists against the ending, and wondering whether the framing device will or should hold up, and I feel like there's something else I have to say in the story, on the tip of my tongue, and can't quite get it out. I think I need a few days or weeks to let it rest before cutting it open again.

I have been given the gift of a week to do nothing but write, and although I'm nervous about the source of the gift, it's still overwhelmingly a good thing. Today is the day I need to get down to business at it, so as not to waste the gift, and I've already procrastinated away two hours on Jon Stewart and Slate and, now, this blog. I have something to do at 1:00 that will take an indeterminate amount of time, and I'm pretty sure I'm just going to take a book with me instead of my laptop - that would be really pretentious, right? - but if I can't get the machine clanking away between now and then, I might compromise and take a notebook. There are always more characters and storylines to be brainstormed, always more Luquenora words to be conjured up.

I've mentioned before that it bothers me how I tend to get excited about certain things in my life, effuse about them to others, and then have to downplay that excitement when my life takes a turn in another direction. In the last few months I've made a concerted effort to change this. Because there's no changing the dilettantish aspect, I've just started to shut my damn mouth about things, tried hard not to blurt out everything going on for me to everyone who asks. This isn't particularly hard, but I think it adds to the general theme of standoffishness that colors much of my interaction with the world of late. I'm in a position of not having to consider this standoffishness a problem for the immediate future - a blessing - but for a long time now it has been one.

In the last couple of weeks a lot of things have happened that, on my old anonymous blog, I would have burst forth about in great geysers of melodramatic prose. But the situation is still enough in flux that I'm embarrassed to say anything, really, only to have to retract it in a few days when I have more information. I don't think anyone would blame me for the uncertainty or the change-and-change-again aspect of this information, because it's all external, not me being flaky. But I'd rather just say nothing until I know more.

At this point I feel like I'm being deliberately cryptic, but I think that's a jerky thing to do on blogs, so I assure you I'm not. I'd rather tell you that I feel muzzled than write short posts that don't hint anything is happening at all. THINGS ARE HAPPENING. They're just not happening with consistency or speed or transparency.

Transparency would be nice, actually. In a couple of weeks, when all of this uncertainty passes, that's going to be my keyword for this blog.

Something I want to tell everybody but I'm afraid to, because they'll judge me for taking such an action when I am not actually working at a paying job: I bought a new laptop. I am still mourning about it a little because I needed a new one and just plain couldn't afford a Mac. So I bought an HP with Windows 7 for, including the cost of Office software and after rebates et al, just under $500. Less than half as much as a comparable Mac.

And I really like this one. It's got everything I need and some extra bells and whistles besides. I'm sorry, Apple Gods! I wanted to buy my third Mac laptop. I just couldn't manage it right now. And for various (legitimate!) reasons, I needed a new laptop.

Plus, it's shiny.

OKAY that's enough procrastination. Off I go into the wild.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Writing from the Brain Stem

I had some really good news yesterday as regards writing, but its specifics are going to have to wait. It hurts me more than it hurts you.

Today I have the following plans: take car in for oil change and painful gouging alignment/brakes fixing, possibly get haircut, and write short story. I mentioned that I came up with an idea last week at yoga class, and seeing as it's been marinating a week with only a couple of paragraphs actually put on the page, I think it's time for me to stop procrastinating and write the damn thing. I'm intimidated by it, though, because it feels like the successor to my most successful story to date, and I don't want to fuck it up. Worrying about that before it's on the page is bound to do nothing but paralyze, but there it is.

I also really must go back to Greenland. My cousin-in-law is doing NaNoWriMo, and as I watch her page count climb via Facebook, I start to feel ashamed that I've stalled at 59,000 words for my own novel. I'm just a couple of scenes away from the end of the middle third of the book, and I'm incredibly uncertain that the third third should go the way that I've intended it to go for the last five years of having the book in mind. I feel like that last third could go a number of other ways, and I feel...scrambly, like I'm running out of time and should be putting together an outline or just a plan of some kind, hurry quick before it's too late. (This is a total fallacy, because as I sit here and don't write it only becomes less urgent for me to come up with the ending.)

But the best ending I think I've ever devised, for the science fiction novella I wrote a couple of years ago, was a complete and utter surprise right up to the fateful sentences. I had no idea that was how the book ended until I wrote it. So I'm trying to kind of stay loose with the ending of this one, to write through it and just see what happens. Maybe not the smartest solution, but my anxiety about it isn't going to magic a plot out of thin air.

Maybe brainstorming would be of use. Jot some possible endings (or all possible endings I can think of), just to put them in my mind, so my writing-brain can draw on them on the point of writing it all.

The writing-brain. That's a useful concept. I believe both that stories come from somewhere, from an interdimensional muse, and come from the hard work of kneading through one word at a time. A lot of the time I'm writing through the Fictator, through the me that plunks down one word at a time, painfully, Frank Conroy-style. But some of the time I'm writing in that zone of nowhere, through the me that composes sentences and paragraphs without even consulting the Fictator and has no anxiety or procrastination in her heart at all.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Kinder, Gentler Overdose

When I first hear a song that I really love, I tend to over-listen to it. I listen to it in the car both to and from work, I listen to it at home on repeat, I pound it into my brain for a week or more before I've had enough of it. All manner of songs have been subject to this treatment, from Paul Simon to Lady Gaga. A couple of years ago, that song was "Come to Me" by Wah!, a kirtan artist of great repute and popularity.

The world of kirtan reminds me a lot of the world of Christian music; it's a whole subculture of people buying and selling and sharing music and attending concerts that goes on more or less entirely under the radar of people who aren't aware of it. I believe there's probably good music and unfortunate excess in both genres. There certainly is in kirtan. At its worst it's repetitive and kind of self-indulgent, with no value to a wide audience unused to its negatives. Ganga White said to us at teacher training that there's something funny to him about chanting to excess - Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Hare Krishna over and over and over, every hour of every day, gets worn into your brain such that your brain maybe can't develop new patterns. As long as your dominant pattern is Hare Krishna, you may not wind up growing very much in your spiritual journey. I'm paraphrasing very badly, but what he said made good sense to me, that chanting in great extremes leads to a failure of imagination.

That said, part of what I love most about "Come to Me" is about six and a half minutes in, when she switches to Sanskrit. The Amrita chant she does is so lovely, and so understated, that it always makes me feel consoled. (Appropriate for a song that's about Amma.)

On Tuesday, I attended the yoga class at Whole Yoga that I enjoyed so much three weeks ago and subbed for last week. I hope I can go to it regularly. One of the songs on the mix for class was a re-do of "Come to Me" that Wah! released on a more recent album - it's slower and shorter than the nine-minute version I love so much from Hidden in the Name. But it reminded me that I hadn't listened to the song in probably over a year. I had over-listened to it on my old iPod, and had never put the song on my new iPod when I bought it in 2009. Hearing her lyrics on Tuesday night made me feel old, loved, held, tired, mournful and rejuvenated all at once.
Come to me
I will take away your sorrow, come to me
I will open your tomorrow, come to me
I will open up your heart, come to me
We will never be apart
Not, perhaps, the most creative lyrics on planet Earth - kirtan lyrics rarely are - but her melody is simple, convincing, full of free-floating love. I couldn't find the long version on YouTube, but this website will play it for you via MySpace.

The following morning, I paid $0.99 to download the song to my iPhone so I could listen to it on the way to work. I sang along. I over-listened to it for most of last week. Then, on Friday, when I was full of jitters and loose ends and terror about my last day of work and what it held for me, I just kept the song in a little pocket in my mind, murmuring "Remove all fear, come from where you are to here," when I felt sad or anxious. It helped so immensely - it's a great debt I have to this song, now, for its soothing powers during the past week.

Even so, I think the song helps to demonstrate what Ganga said, because when she makes jai ma into the chorus toward the end of the song (jai ma is perhaps the most basic and widespread of all chants, and the one most likely to be irrevocably patterned into Wah!'s brain), it feels like a bit of a creative failure. I'll still sing along, but it seems like overkill that she put the Sanskrit in there at all. She could have just repeated the earlier lyrics. But instead, she's got to work jai ma in there somewhere, because everything comes back to jai ma, jai ma, jai jai ma.

I still haven't managed to insert this song into any of my class mixes. It's too soft for the majority of the music I use in vinyasa classes (which is stuff like Thievery Corporation and Cafe Del Mar), and it's too bouncy for restorative or yin classes. I'll figure out a chill mix to put it in, because others deserve the gift this song gave me, but it'll have to be next week, when I have time enough at last to pick through my music as I've been wanting to for months. I'm thinking of putting together a mix called Inevitably Makes Me Feel Better (or something rather more catchy), with "Rocket Man" and "When I Come Around" and "Enter Sandman" and "Come to Me" and others on there, songs that never, ever fail to fix whatever ails me for four or five minutes.

Friday, November 4, 2011


For three years, I blogged anonymously, elsewhere, and I let it ALL hang out. There were virtually no subjects that I didn't tell the truth about, even when no one asked. I talked about my relationships, wrote at great length about what was in my head, griped about work, let loose my perspective about all kinds of issues. Anonymity was a privilege, and I respected and enjoyed it enormously.

Now that I'm using my real name, I feel a great deal more limited. This evening, I was putting together a post in my head about something that I was feeling and experiencing that was benign and harmless and mostly about me, and I realized that in order to say what I wanted to say, I'd have to give my opinion about an aspect of the yoga world (kirtan, specifically), and that I might offend a small portion of the population in doing so - or at least let them know, in definite terms, what that opinion was. If we've learned little else from the last five years in America, it's that opinions can be dangerous, can pigeonhole people in damaging ways. Even if this particular opinion isn't going to get me arrested, it's a block about me that people can check off in their heads: that yoga teacher feels that way about kirtan, so I'll never go to one of her classes. So I'm hesitant to let my opinions out for air, here, because I'm trying to make this blog as public as it can be, and I don't want to offend or turn anyone away. That is the very last thing I ever want to do as I go about my life.

The problem is, that leaves me with only the most generic personal things to say. My worry about pigeonholing and rejection extends to just about every subject imaginable, and that means that this blog doesn't have any teeth, any personal edge that might keep you reading even if you disagree with me.

I'm going to try to open up in the future, starting with this kirtan thing - I'm going to write the post as I wanted to write it (maybe tomorrow, maybe next week, but it's coming!), and when the world doesn't explode, I'll try to write some more. I'm just gun-shy, concerned that now, because I don't have the protective awning of anonymity over my head, I'm going to be subject to kangaroo courts and the judgment of strangers, all of whom know who I really am. I recognize that I am not exactly a prominent defendant in the court of public opinion, so perhaps I'm worrying over nothing. But as Aaron Sorkin reminded us so eloquently in The Social Network, the internet isn't written in pencil. It's written in ink. And who knows what the future will bring to me?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Vice Versus Om

Over the last several months, alcohol consumption gradually became a nightly thing for me rather than a few-times-weekly-if-at-all thing. Every night I was so frustrated by what had happened during the day that the mental and emotional smear resulting from a glass of wine or a bottle of Leinenkugel became something of a crutch. I never went beyond two drinks in an evening, and didn't frequently go beyond one. (It also helped me get over my fear of the empty page so I could ease into nightly writing.)

This worried me, as I watched it happening. I knew that I wasn't exactly in wino territory (and that it might be a little absurd to worry about one drink per evening), but growing dependent on that mild smear was troubling, nevertheless. When things changed again a few weeks ago, I stopped drinking altogether - didn't have the time - and I was glad to find that the crutch wasn't actually a dependency.

What I did do a few weeks ago was smoke a single clove cigarette. I had had a few left in a pack that I kept in my glove compartment "for emergencies" for the five years that I haven't been a smoker, and one night when I really desperately wanted one, I smoked one. I wrote a very good essay about it and quashed my guilt as best I could. Matt and a friend have insisted that it's all right for me to let loose some stress by smoking once in a very great while, and I'm choosing to believe them. Unfortunately, clove cigarettes were outlawed during the five years I wasn't smoking them, and now you can't get them in this country. You can get clove cigarillos, which I'm guessing are virtually the same product, and yesterday I went to a tobacco shop in downtown Annapolis and bought a pack. (Of 12. For $8. Gaaaah.)

Last night there was a yoga class I had planned to attend, but all I could think about as I was leaving work was the pack of cigarillos in my purse and the lone Leinie's in my fridge at home. That was what I wanted to do with my evening. I'm 90% over the cold that's been dogging me for over a week, and I wanted to smoke a clove on the way home and then make dinner and drink a beer and get going again on the Greenland book. I didn't want to go to yoga and purify; I wanted to consume chemicals and toxify.

I went to yoga. Despite traffic, despite hunger, despite the crowded room, I went back to the mat. I knew it was the right thing to do.

It was a good class. I really like this teacher. He's not obsessed with strength, he has a good presence and a good voice, and his adjustments are great. I might have even gotten a story idea out of class; time and drafting will tell.

This evening, though, nothing is going to keep me from my vices. I really want to know what these cigarillos are like, and that one beer in the fridge has to be lonely. I'll happily end its suffering.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Opera(ting) Alone

I just bought meself a ticket to see Lucia di Lammermoor at the Kennedy Center in two weeks. I really do like opera - not universally, not to the point where I forgive its many shortcomings or can say that I "love" opera - but to the point where I don't want to miss a world-class performance of an opera I've never seen if it's reasonably convenient for me to go. The last time I went to an opera (The Marriage of Figaro, and I loved it deeply) I felt like I'd run a marathon when it was over, so if I'm not exactly excited, I'm pleased and looking forward to it. I got a (shitty) orchestra seat, and I like being able to see the faces, so yay.

I only bought one ticket. Matt's father is sometimes my opera buddy (his wife and my husband are not so much fans of it, so this often works out), but I thought it would be just too much trouble to coordinate both of us going, and I wanted to go ahead and get a ticket before they were gone.

I don't mind going to things alone. The first time I did this was when The Little Mermaid came back to theaters in 1997. I was a teenager. At the time, Pixar had not yet made animation cool, and I was so embarrassed by my desire to see it on the big screen (hadn't seen it on its original release when I was seven) that I didn't even ask any of my friends if they wanted to go with me. I just went alone. And I had the most marvelous time. I wasn't the least bit ashamed of going by myself because I'd enjoyed myself so much.

I've been to lots of movies by myself since: Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Royal Tenenbaums (I walked out of that one, and if I'd been with somebody I probably would have suffered through it instead), This Is It, Bridesmaids. I went to The Lion King rerelease a few weeks ago by myself; Matt wasn't interested. I'm explaining this at length because it seems like the normal thing in America is for movies to be a social event, and I don't always see it that way. If I go by myself, I can enjoy the movie without self-consciousness, and I can leave if I don't like it, and I can sit wherever I want to. For me, the only negative, honestly, is that I can't go to the bathroom because I have nobody to tell me what happened while I was gone. But I think it's pretty awful to go to the bathroom during the movies anyway, since you're drawn out of the experience - which is virtually the only advantage the cinema has these days.

Anyway, I have no real problem going to the Kennedy Center by myself in two weeks. I had Matt with me the last time I went there, a few months ago for a strange dance concert, and I'll miss his company during intermission, but I don't want to subject him to Lucia di Lammermoor when it's not really his thing.

I didn't write last night. It's over a week now since I worked on the Greenland book, which makes me feel guilty and anxious, but my life kind of collapsed on itself in the last two weeks, and I'm having to pick through the rubble and do things like laundry and grocery shopping that didn't get done while I was imploding. I'm coming out of it with a new Thursday night yoga class, which is good, and a lot more optimism about what's ahead. But there's a good deal more rebuilding to do.

Friday, October 28, 2011


If I had been able to get it together enough to laugh about my situation, yesterday would have been the day that I looked up at the sky and said "REALLY? REALLY NOW?" But instead, Morphine intervened and turned things around for me.

And then, later, a company that publishes science stuff intervened again and turned things around further. And there was yoga involved. My head is still stuffy as hell, but I'm not dying on my feet anymore, and things could be so much worse than they are.

I've taken the week off from writing so far. I feel like a jerk about it, but there's an awful lot going on, both actually and emotionally, and hey, I've got a cold. I'm spending a lot of time collapsed on the couch. I've got to get back to it - I've especially been skimping on the workshop I'm in - but I think it'll have to be over the weekend that I do so.

Last night I watched Imitation of Life, and although it was a bit more obvious in places than Mildred Pierce, I really liked it. Melodrama is appealing to me; I think it's because the story is all interior, all a battle between people in living rooms, but the stakes are so inflated that you can't stop watching. I simultaneously take it seriously and can't take it seriously, which means it's fun to watch - I'm invested, but I'm not weeping when something goes wrong.

TGIF, man. Srsly. This has been one of the hardest weeks of the last two years.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Test Swatches

I am, um, not having a good week. If I had a dog, it would get run over tomorrow.

A phrase in Stephen King's On Writing that I've been thinking about lot lately is "shoveling shit from a sitting position". In full context, he tells us to keep writing, because your perceptions of your work can be wrong, and you can be doing good work even if it feels like you're shoveling shit from a sitting position. When I sit at my laptop and work on my Greenland novel, that is exactly, precisely what it feels like I'm doing. As if I'm just moving manure around with weakening arms, unable to get up out of the muck. But I felt the same way about the last work I did on my horror novel, until finally work on it just sort of...petered out, because I was tired of the perceived smell. But when I went back and read it months later, like magic, it had turned into something not-so-bad. So the thing to do, just as Steve tells us, is to keep going.

I've also been thinking about knitting and writing. One of the things you must do when you sit down to knit a new project is knit a test swatch. It's a little square piece of knitting meant to test how many stitches per inch you knit with these needles and this yarn. Everybody knits a little differently, with a tension that is greater or lesser - tighter stitches or looser ones - and you may have to change needle sizes or even yarn to make sure that your project comes out all right per the pattern. If you don't knit a test swatch, you can't be sure that the number of stitches in the pattern will come out to the same yardage on your finished product, and you might wind up with a garment that's too big, too small, or simply won't come together at all.

The thing is, when you cast on to knit a test swatch, you walk into it feeling as if the time you spend knitting these stitches is going to be wasted. You know that these stitches are going to be unraveled. The swatch is only for testing your gauge, it doesn't go into the finished product, so when you're finished with enough stitches to give you a decent area for measurement, rrrrrrrrip go the stitches and you have to wind the yarn up and cast on all over again, this time for the actual project. Or you start over with yet another swatch, if you've changed needles, or you have to abandon the project altogether because the yarn or the available needles just won't work.

To me, test swatches are tragic, and I hate doing them. I don't, if I can avoid it - if the project isn't tricky or I can find the same yarn with which the pattern was designed. I know at least one knitter who loves them. She thinks of them like mini-projects, and she even keeps some test swatches and labels them so she knows what her gauge was with those needles on that yarn. But I just can't help seeing them as anything but wasted effort.

There's a lot about writing that can be viewed from this perspective. Ira Glass reminds us that in order to get through the gap we just have to do a lot of work, knit a lot of test swatches that never end up making it into the finished product. It's frustrating as all hell, to have done all of this work and gotten theoretically no usable work out of it, but the thing is -

If you don't knit your test swatches, your "real work" can't happen at all. (That insight deserved a new paragraph.) Without knowing what your tension actually is, what knitting on those needles on this day looks like, you will never know whether the finished product is going to work. All of the words that you write and cut, slicing valiantly through them with your Fictator sword, were there for a reason; they were there to reveal the jewel of writing that existed underneath, all along. The mountain still has to produce a giant block of marble in order for Michelangelo to carve a beautiful sculpture out of it. Was the mountain's effort wasted?

So I'm trying, really hard, to write backstory that might never see the light of day, exposition that I will keep in my laptop for my own reference and no one else's eyes, chapters that I know, even while writing them, really are manure and will inevitably be cut. It's all of a piece; it's all work that helps me to write a finished product. Even if, at the time, it feels like a total waste, it all adds up to something.