Tuesday, April 30, 2013

All the News (with Additional News)

Good news: the biopsies came back 1) normal and 2) clinically insignificant. So I've still got to watch my skin carefully in the upcoming months and years, but I need no more treatment for the time being. Hooraaaay.

Other news: I read Green Girl, by Kate Zambreno, and didn't like it as much as I expected. A very interesting and confident style, but a bit frustrating in other areas. You might like it more than I did. I'm nearly finished reading Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones, which got a lot of attention when it came out for being the first fiction book that treats Hurricane Katrina in a meaningful, lyrical, compelling way. (At least, that's about how I remember the reviews going.) It won the National Book Award. Really, it's not my usual sort of book at all, but it's absolutely taken my breath away. I feel like I'm reading a new classic, a book that kids will be reading in school for decades to come. I would call it unmissable, in the same way that you've got to read Beloved and To Kill a Mockingbird and at least one Dickens book to consider yourself a citizen of the printed word. An extraordinary piece of work.

In my TBR pile right now are, in order: Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible and Joy Harjo's memoir Crazy Brave, both of which are library books with due dates; Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I have long put off reading because I think it will exasperate me, but if I'm going to write my own experimental novel with weird format shifts and whatnot, I really need to sit at the feet of a master; Redshirts; Where'd You Go, Bernadette, which has one of the most appealing and memorable covers I've seen in years

and which I understand is a humorous addition to the wonderful new wave of books about mother/daughter relationships; and a pile of books I bought at the library book sale a week or so ago that aren't really urgent. I even have a TBR list on the library's website. I AM WHO AM READ ALL THINGS, GRAAAARGH.

(Total sidebar: this is probably my favorite book cover of all time.

I don't know why. Something about the movement of her hair added to the word "crow" in the title, her slightly dipped head, the way the words are situated, the extremely simple font. I just adore it, and I think of it so often when I'm trying to decide if a book has a good cover or not. I haven't even read it!)

Other other news: Yet again there seems to be an unmissable theatrical experience happening in New York, and this time I'm not even on the same coast so I don't know how I'm going to not miss it. My hero Ron Rosenbaum published this fascinating story in Slate last week on the Boston bombing, Macbeth, and the nature of evil. Check it out.

I've gotten addicted to the Totally Hip Video Book Review (even though I strongly disagree with his review of Nightfall). Ron Charles's videos demonstrate what the ivory tower sense of humor is like in its finest form. He makes me miss my mom.

Still other news: I'm waiting on the word of a reader for the two weird stories I have in revision - the boy-on-garbage-scow story and a short about stalking. Matt read them and gave me some useful feedback, but I'm waiting to dig in and revise until I hear from this other reader. I wish the feedback process wasn't...the way it is. The garbage scow story has promise, I think, but I'm so damned uncertain about it.

I wrote the story in a pidgin, with "n" in place of "and" and "somethin" instead of "something" and "s'far's" for "so far as" and etc. This is always a risky thing to do, as any reader of Emma Donoghue's Room or Mary Webb's Gone to Earth will tell you, and I fear that, in making aspects of the story clearer - hence making the story longer - I'll extend the patience of the reader too far. And I still worry that the setup is not especially believable, although Matt told me it didn't bother him nearly as much as other things I didn't even think of (predictably). I don't really know what I'll do with it when it is finished, though. The literary markets I particularly want to pursue don't tend to publish period fiction, which is what this is. Iunno. Worry about that when I'm satisfied with the story, I guess.

Today's revision day for the boy-and-mom crisis story, and I've had this feeling all during my mandatory waiting period that it's not good and not salvageable. I hope to be wrong.

My writing muscle really wants for flexing. I want to start on a big project. In the same way I want to be able to build a bookshelf out of lumber and nails, but have no practical knowledge or tools or schematic for doing so.

Friday, April 26, 2013

To Do or Not to Do

I didn't enjoy being young. Enumerating all the reasons for this would be foolhardy and dull, but one reason was that I felt constantly powerless. Everyone else in my life determined what I would do and when I would do it, and that bothered me too much to really enjoy myself. It confused me greatly then, and still bemuses me slightly, when people express nostalgia for the days of childhood. It wasn't all bad, of course, but I would wholeheartedly choose the autonomy and responsibility I have now over the stuckness I felt then. Every time, anytime.

I think I've finally gotten my arms around it, though, what people are missing when they miss childhood. Every morning when I sit down to my computer, I wake my brain up enough to ask what I have to do that day. What's on my to-do list? Chores, correspondence, money-work, creative work? Checking on submissions, revisions, reading for others, grocery shopping, cleaning the bathroom, dusting? Does Matt need socks or something dry-cleaned? Is there something coming up in our lives that I need to prepare for now?

It's not just having to complete all these tasks, but having to remember to do them, and feeling the pressure of responsibility to get A, B, and C done that day, that adulthood is all about. You can pay others to keep your to-do list for you, potentially; you can shirk all your responsibilities and wash yourself with a rag on a stick. But normally, you have a to-do list for any given day and you run through it before you sleep again.

This morning, when I sat down at my computer and tried to boot up my mental to-do list, I felt this weariness. Like, ohgod, I have another damn to-do list for today, I am so tired of doing things. (See also this.)

I wondered if it was possible not to have a to-do list for an extended period, and realized that's what childhood is like. Everyone else is keeping your list for you; you just have to follow their directions. How reassuring it would be to do life this way, rather than having to keep track of all your own shit.

In other news, water is wet. Happy Friday.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Eyes of Others

I found this article about Lionel Shriver pretty interesting. She wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin, a daring, devastating book that won the Orange Prize, sold very well, and was made into a movie starring Tilda Swinton. The article reveals that her own agent and 30 publishers turned down Kevin, which surprises me not at all, because its subject is very unpleasant. The whole situation reminded me of a quote from Cliff Bleszinski, an icon in the video game industry who led design on Gears of War and many other efforts: "When your marketing guy and numbers guy and others are kind of confused about how to market and sell your game, double down on it. It means you have something unique." He was talking about Bioshock Infinite, and the full context is here, although there be spoilers. I read this quote a few weeks ago, and it's been in my head every couple of days ever since. I consider it great advice for all creative endeavors. Dare to do what the marketing department can't figure out. (Slaughterhouse-Five. The Hunger Games. Fight Club. Back to the Future.)

I was also reminded of a vague set of ideas that's been swirling around in my head for the last couple of years, since I read Cheryl Strayed's Sugar column that coined write like a motherfucker. One of the central questions of the column is how to be a successful woman writer without feeling defeated by the patriarchy before you even begin. Strayed replied that you do what Flannery O'Connor did; you do what Elizabeth Bishop did; you do what Mary Shelley did; you do what the Brontes and Austen and Dorothy Parker and Rebecca West and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Adrienne Rich and LeGuin and DuMaurier and Anaïs Nin did. You write "so blazingly good you can't be framed." You just. keep. writing. better and better, until your gender is irrelevant.

The more I looked around, the more I saw women who did it anyway, either without considering the patriarchy's interest in watching them fail, or without caring. Women about whom sexist criticism looked like exactly what it was, because they were that blazingly good. I thought of this idea when I read Gilead, because Marilynne Robinson's prevalence as a writer doesn't seem to be affected by her gender, and I don't know that she has drawn her gender into her career at all. Maybe she's struggled with it and written about it, but I don't see that from where I sit, which seems like a good sign. Margaret Atwood is arguably Canada's greatest living writer, and I didn't make that phrase up out of my head, I've read it in article after article. She writes especially about women's issues most of the time, but that doesn't lessen her stature.

The thing I've been wondering to myself is whether you can - whether certain women do - conduct a career as a woman writer without considering the patriarchy at all. If you can just turn your head to the other side and write on, not thinking about the statistics, not thinking about the possibility that you've been turned down over and over because of your first name and not because of the quality of your work. Not wondering whether, if you took on the name George instead, you might get an inbox full of acceptances. If I pretend this is a world where I have thoroughly equal shot of getting into Harper's (although it is demonstrably untrue), will that world come to exist? Or does my writing have to be 75% better than George's for me to make it?

This always leads me to the question of whether a woman writer will find more success - and inner peace - by trying to pass or by being an exceptional woman writer. By which I mean - do you be Margaret Atwood, a feminist, the person who wrote The Handmaid's Tale, which does nothing if not draw attention to the problem? Or do you be George Eliot, who more or less kept her head down in order to be taken seriously? (If you're Deborah Copaken Kogan, you get tired of keeping your head down and go viral in The Nation.)

I'm not offering answers. But it strikes me that turning my head to the side has two effects: one is that it helps me concentrate on improving my work, instead of being depressed by counting and comparing bylines in the publications and anthologies I read (and oh, it is indeed depressing if you stop to notice, my friends). The other is that it makes me feel I'm betraying something essential by not paying attention and speaking out. If I don't take notice, if I don't speak up, that's less attention that will be paid to the inequality.

To be perfectly honest, I would rather not be shrill than speak up every single time I notice a problem. I took this picture a couple of weeks ago

and haven't posted it on Facebook or here yet (well...until now), because I thought maybe I'd said too much in general about the horrid, contradictory, destructive power of the beauty-industrial complex to defeat women in this country. I don't want to drive people away by constantly beating the same drum, especially when there isn't much to be done to fix it.

I'd rather just write.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Done and Done and Done

I'm sort of wrecking the scheduling on this blog by getting way ahead of myself - a temporary condition, to be sure - but I wanted to note that I wrote the last post on the weekend before the Boston Marathon (13th-14th) and planned to post it on Tuesday the 16th. Instead I wrote that far more somber piece on Monday the 15th and wanted to give it time to sit before posting anything else. By Monday the 15th, a lot of the discomfort from the suture sites had cleared up (although by no means all of it), and I was able to concentrate enough to finish drafting the mother/son story on Tuesday, before I even posted my complaint that I couldn't finish it. (Also, I was healing quickly enough that I had the sutures removed on Friday the 19th, and I nearly wept with relief. I'm still healing, but it's SO much better to have them gone.) I think I fucked up the ending very badly, but I'll look at it in two weeks and see what there is to see.

Similarly, some of this post was written on Wednesday the 17th. If I was more willing to embrace the ups and downs of my ability to write here, rather than insisting on twice-a-week posts, no more or less, we wouldn't be in this mess.

So. Here's the slightly old news.

I mentioned offhand a while ago that I had an idea for an experimental choose-your-own-adventure/Wikipedia kind of novel. I'm thinking of developing it as my next project, because I'm excited about it now and striking in the excitement phase always seems like a good idea when I'm considering creative work.

The other night I was talking through the idea with Matt and I had an "it comes in pints?" moment. He suggested that I add a layer of revision history information into the book, just like the one they have on Wikipedia, and I said something like "You can just look at that?" and he said sure, look at the site, there's even a comment thread sometimes that you can read. So this morning I had a look.


I had no idea that the underside of Wikipedia's existence is so easy to reveal, nor that it was so incredibly detailed. Looking at revision history is easily as much of a black hole as is the upper side of the archive, because even beyond comparing revisions, you can click on any number of the usernames and see what else they've edited, what people have written to them, etc etc. So many conclusions to draw, so little time. This project is looking more challenging, more unmanageable, all the time, but I really want to do it.

I read Natalie Serber's Shout Her Lovely Name last week, and found it a bit uneven. The first story was a gutshot, unforgettable and remarkable. The rest of the book...less so. I'll look forward to more work by her, but this was difficult to love unconditionally. I also saw The Future, Miranda July's second film, for which I saw the trailer in the theater a long, long time ago and got really excited. The movie itself was a letdown, I'm afraid; it was really not much different than the short stories of hers I read, with the same blank spaces, weird quirky happenings, and fascinating (if sometimes unexplained) moments between people. It was slow and cerebral and twee. Watch the trailer instead and imagine your own movie.

I also went back to revise two strange stories, the one about the boy on the garbage scow and one about stalking, and I think they're both pretty neat if really weird but I honestly have no clue if people outside my head are going to feel that way. My usual #1 reader has been too busy lately to have a look, so I'm kind of treading water in the community pool of uncertainty until another reader gets back to me.

And I did a bit of work on the breasts essay. It didn't turn out like I hoped. I think I've gotten too accustomed to blog format to be able to write essays decently at all. I still have more work to do on it, but it might go in the bin.

There. All caught up. Next week I'll actually be blogging in real time, it seems.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

To the Left, to the Left

Sometime during my yoga apprenticeship I was seized with the notion that the left side of my body was the creative side. I must have combined the (true? false? inconclusive?) idea that left-handed people are more creative with that thing about the thought processes of left-brained people vs. right-brained people, only I think I mixed it up and it's the right-brained people who are more creative. It might actually have been in some book I read about chakras or meridians or something. In any event, I haven't been able to clear out the belief that my left side is related to my creative life.

I previously interpreted this to mean that things which happen to the left side of my body are sending me cosmic messages about how I need to behave toward my creativity. As one example: when over-aggressive yoga created a mild injury in my back and caused me radiating pain along my left leg, I presumed it meant I wasn't listening to my creative side enough and needed to nurture it more. The pain was meant as a telegram of Pay Attention to Me.

Over the last year, I've set aside many of the ideas I picked up during my four-year assignation with yoga, but this one, silly as it is, won't quite let go. Rather than existential cause and effect, I've tried to believe in more practical versions. When I get that radiating pain, it means I've been sitting too much or have otherwise strained the injured disk, not that I have failed to sound my barbaric yawp for the week. But last week's medical issues have made me wonder if there is some kind of cosmic, woo-woo aspect to left and right and what I'm doing with my body vs. what I'm doing with my head.

Monday, April 15, 2013

April 15, 2013

I am on the treadmill.

I am jogging.

It's not a meaningful choice. I woke up with the intention to jog today.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Seven Devils in Your House

I am drafting this nearly two full days before I intend to post it, because I have to dismember a head of cauliflower for dinner and there is no vegetable I consider such an effing chore as cauliflower. Procrastination ahoy!

I have been reading Marianne Moore's poetry and Lorrie Moore's prose, along with a memoir by Pam Houston. I am surprised at how little I like Moore #1 and, by contrast, at how Moore #2's turns of phrase seemingly jump out from behind a door to be astonishing and brilliant in the midst of a somewhat ordinary tale. I want to devour all of what she has to offer. Houston's book was fine. It covered a lot of the same ground as the other two books of hers I read, which leads me to an interesting notion I appear to have learned about writing: it is possible to keep telling the same story over and over for an entire career without being laughed out of the room. I haven't finished thinking about this, but I'll blog about it when I do.

Yesterday I started a story based on a mother-son idea I've had for a while. The first 1,000 words came really slowly and unpleasantly, and I have the feeling it's going to be a good exercise in rewriting. As of yet I have no idea what its audience is, whether it'll turn out literary with genre elements or just unsaleable.

Lately, with no concrete story ideas, I've been thirsting to write about ghosts. I don't think it's just due to the Ghosts by Gaslight anthology I'm still inching through; the more I think about it, the more I realize that I like ghost stories above nearly all genres. Yet they're so unusual these days, and even more rarely are they genuinely spooky and well-told. (Gregory Maguire's Lost is a good one, FYI.) Also, like going around and around the same jogging track, I keep mentally returning to Florence + the Machine's Ceremonials, an album that is just packed with ghosts and ghost stories, whispered and half-understood. Since first listening to it, I've wished I could write a novel that somehow accompanies the album, the way House of Leaves and Poe's Haunted go together. I'm not Flo's sister, though, and I really haven't the foggiest idea what she had in mind when writing the songs on that album, so it's a pretty impossible notion. The songs are just so evocative, of dark hallways and fluttering dresses and the wind through chimes and things half-seen in mirrors. I want to evoke in words and story what's evoked in music there.

On Monday I wrote the initial draft of an essay about breasts. I don't know if it's any good, or if it'll evolve into being any good. I also went back to a short piece I wrote in the middle of March (which was, happily, better than I remembered) and gussied it up for publication. Several hundred words of miraculously speedy feedback later, my gussying was shown to be for naught, and I'm not sure whether to plow into more work on the piece again or let it sit for a little while longer to see what happens. I do think there's something there, but it was starting to read like gibberish after the third revision.

Similarly, in my day job, I seem to have lost the ability to determine when commas are used correctly in long sentences and when they aren't. I think it's because I edited a long piece written in very muddled English last week, the kind where by the end you sort of forget what syntax is supposed to be because you've seen so much of it that stinks. Since then I've been editing kind of stoned, not really sure what's firmly correct and what's just up to the Comma Gods to decide in the hereafter, man. Ultimately we're all just commas in the long, architecturally unsound sentence that is Life. You know? Like, little splicey commas, all of us. Wow, I'm hungry.

So I guess I better chop some cauliflower.  :(

Monday, April 8, 2013

So Long, Maggie

Well, at least I didn't have to wait very long for that rejection.

It's OK. On Saturday I went for a hike and felt better. I also gathered a list of several other agents to whom to send the package. And I feel a little like since I've written the synopsis, the hard part's over.

In other news, I read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson this week, and really...didn't enjoy it. This is probably the sixth or seventh time I've read a Pulitzer Prize winner and cared almost nothing for it, so I think I'm going to stop using that prize as a basis for whether I'll enjoy something. I think it's a book with tremendous merit, especially for people who are strongly invested in Christian life - and more especially for a subset of those people who are intellectually interested in Christian spirituality - but it's not really the book for me. I wanted more about the characters and their interpersonal issues, and I wanted more there there, but as the book wore on, it became even more about the content of the narrator's sermons and less about the extremely interesting humans who populated the landscape. Disappointing for that reason.

I also read Miranda July's book of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You. I didn't like it at first, but it either grew on me or got better. It'll be unbearably hipsterish for some readers, I warn, but for all that she's a creative writer with a fresh style. I want to read more of her work to become capable of dissecting it.

Margaret Thatcher died today. I was raised in a Reaganite household in the U.S., so I didn't grow up thinking of Thatcher as a villain. As an adult I've learned she was pretty dangerously certain of her own positions, and that she didn't really give a damn about the masses, both of which are not good qualities for a national leader, if you ask me. However, I still have a soft spot of admiration for her, despite trying really hard not to (particularly after learning more about the Falklands War). We share a birthday - the Day of the Tough Cookie, according to my birthday book - and I think most women could stand to believe we're as strong as she. Can I justify that?

I've been itching to write all weekend, and after I knock out some work and some chores, I'm going to do just that. I have an essay in mind, and if I can't get any fiction underway, I'll write exercises. The itch is genuinely maddening and only one thing will cool the burn.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dreaming My Way to Work

Most of my big ideas come from dreams. The central ideas for both the Greenland book and the time book came from lengthy, specific dreams that I wrote down and fleshed out. Other dreams have been used either as a starting point for something that wandered far afield from its source material, or as filler for a central idea that I attained elsewhere.

Dreams are bizarre; everyone knows that. I write them down, and then look at them a week later and go whaaaat? Dreams that are insanely engaging as I experience them might turn out to be useless either from a story perspective or a symbolic, figuring-out-my-life perspective. But the notion that a dream by which I am still fascinated months later is too bizarre to shape into a story...I finally decided this week that I can't truck with that. Some of the stuff I'm proudest of writing in the past year has seemed too odd for public consumption at the outset, and I've written it anyway, winding up with the opposite of regret.

I keep returning to Jim Henson at moments like this. (I feel like I've written about this before, but I can't find it on a blog search, so at the risk of repeating myself...) The idea of a prime-time variety show for adults starring felt puppets must have been, to understate the case, extremely hard to sell. But he worked really fucking hard, and he did it. And he created something unforgettable. It inspires me that he did this (and it especially inspires me that his success didn't really get going until he was 40), because his ideas were just weird, but it turned out that a lot of people loved them anyway.

Yesterday I wrote the first draft of a story about a boy who lives on a garbage scow. In the big picture, the story is supposed to be about the cruel limits of charity, but ever since I had the dream that inspired the story, I've shied away from developing or writing it. I kept rereading that set of notes and thinking "boy who lives on garbage scow...nah, too weird, no one will believe it" and turning the page. Yet I'm growing tired of doing throwaway work I'm not especially proud of, and I decided to try writing it anyway. Maybe I can frame it as a fairy tale, I thought, and make it more of a genre story.

It didn't come out that way. It came out in a first-person roughneck pidgin, set vaguely in the Victorian era, veering into a narrative structure which I think I'll have to pitch and rewrite. But it felt good in the doing. It didn't feel like a waste of time. It felt like something new, something weird but inspired. We'll see, after it's done resting, if it goes in the drawer or out into the world.

I also wrote a poem yesterday. I virtually never write poetry, because I don't understand it well and I doubt I've grown at all as a poet since I wrote angsty teenage junk. But I feel quite good about this one - good enough to seek feedback and maybe even publication, once it's been redrafted a couple of times. I was inspired by reading three issues of The Sun nearly back to back over the past two weeks; the magazine publishes poetry that agrees with me in small doses. Although I find it pretty unfair and unrealistic, there's something to magazines' insistence that you read a few issues before you submit work to them. I only just feel like I have an idea of The Sun's mood and intention now that I've held a subscription for six months.

On Tuesday, I sent a query package for KUFC to an agent. Please cross your fingers for me.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Utterly Distracted

I'd like to pretend that I have stuff to say in this space, but Bioshock Infinite was all we did this weekend, so everything in my brain except Bioshock Infinite is kind of like this:

Although! I did read Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke. I don't remember how it got put on my to-be-read list. My educated guess is that my friend Kathleen recommended it to me; however, it's about the Norse gods and includes a loving description of Brunnhilde on her island of fire, so I couldn't help feeling as I finished it that all things in my life are circling back to the Ring cycle.

I also read a book by Robin Romm called The Mercy Papers, a memoir of the author's mom's death from cancer. Happy lightweight stuff. Not really recommended, for not-very-objective reasons.

One day I'll get back to writing about wrioshock Infinite. Swearsies.