Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Blessed Unrest

Nothing has slowed down since last week. People I love are in trouble. I'm about to go out of my skin from not writing (tomorrow I will sacrifice all things to get some words on the page. ALL THINGS).

Yet, there is love. There is light.

Here's what I actually want to tell you today, something I mentioned in passing back in late July. This is a quote from an interview that Brad Listi did of Lidia Yuknavitch on his podcast, Otherppl, on July 15.
Brad: Has it gotten any easier?

Lidia: Oh! [laughs] Here's why it doesn't get easier. So, you know, you hone your skill set. And you sort of become a stronger writer, let's say. But then what happens is the creative questions you're interested in, you reach for more challenging ones. So then you're really back at a starting place of jumping off a cliff, because innovation puts you in that novice place - back again. So there's really never a "it gets easier" point. If, if, your goal is to change and grow as you write forward. I don't think that's every writer's goal, but it's some of our goal. And so do you see what I mean? As you reach for weirder questions in your writing and you press on different artistic explorations, you're continually remaking yourself as the novice, or the space monkey, as Chuck [Palahniuk] would say. 
At some point around "really back at a starting place," I moaned aloud, noisily, and said "No no no nooooooo," and then backed it up and listened to it again and moaned some more and, later, once out of my car, I shook my tiny fist at the sky and cried why, little baby Jesus, whyyyyyy.

Because FUCK. I don't know, like from experience, but I'm pretty sure, that she's right. That there's never a point where you feel like you know what you're doing, because instead you keep twisting and turning into new and different creative places and it's always, ever, until the end of your life in letters, hard.

Which is kind of another way of saying this

The writer here is Agnes De Mille; the Martha is Martha Graham.

, but in a much less arty-farty airy-fairy way - a way that makes me actually understand what I'm in for rather than thinking Yes, let me please be good enough to feel like Martha Graham at some point.

Unrest. Evolution. Starting over as a space monkey. Challenging creative questions. Wailing out at the unfair Whatever who built me to do this job.

Why couldn't I just be a tax attorney?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Let Go or Be Dragged

Hey, I managed a second Your Friday Yes!


I still feel a little funny about putting my face on the internet like this after such a long time in resistance to it. But I'm also glad I waited until I had something to say before I started making videos.

In other news - possibly more relevant to you, the reader of this writing blog - an essay I wrote about my Labor Day experience was published on Jennifer Pastiloff's Manifest-Station. It's personal, to be sure, but I hope it's not embarrassing. You can read it here.

I'm gradually working my way through the to-do list in my last post. Naturally, new things are coming up. But that's why I said yes to life just being busy. Email me anyway. <3

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Ceci N'est Pas une Blog Post

click to embiggen, but the clearly readable top text is the point
(Calvin & Hobbes is obvs drawn by Bill Watterson, not me)

The number of strategies I have in my pocket for when I can't sit down and pour out prose in a beautiful river continues to grow. One I learned about two years ago still fits extremely well with my personality: make a list. To-do lists are a daily part of my life (otherwise I forget everything), and incorporating them into creative work is useful, too. If you can't write a paragraph, you can write a list. I'm certain of it.

Like, for instance, today I can't write a blog post. And the reasons why fit conveniently into list form. This week's tasks:
  • Get going on second story for workshop class 
  • Write response to yesterday's workshop of first story 
  • Put together facilitation for another student's story for next Monday 
  • Read Foucault 
  • Reread Lacan 
  • Write detailed, specific summary (like 2,000+ words) of Caleb Williams, which I hated 
  • Finish The Age of Wire and String, one of the most baffling books I've ever read (I see what he's up to, I'm pretty sure, but it's not a breezy read) 
  • Write comprehensible response to The Age of Wire and String 
  • Finish setting up new computer, a process which is alarmingly slow this time around 
  • Set up new webcam 
  • Do Friday's Yes video 
And within the next month or so:
  • Complete and workshop second story 
  • Get back to the last two stories of the secret project before the spirit of them leaves me 
  • Write nine-page braided story (started, very curious to see where it goes) for Labor Day workshop homework (I don't think I can use it as the workshop story, for various reasons) 
  • Prepare detailed presentation on "the theories of Rubin, Irigaray, Cixous, and Kristeva" as applied to The Piano, which I've seen, but not in years (note: I have never read three of those theorists) 
  • Either throw large and fun St. Crispin's Day party, or ditch the idea 
  • Read three or four more experimental books 
  • Workshop other people's stories 
  • Do more Yes videos 
  • Live life, in there somewhere, like meals and vacuuming and sleep 
If you're not going AAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH just from reading that, either I'm not doing the writerly work of engaging you especially well, or you're not actually imagining the work involved. My brain just keeps saying "I am so fucked."

I'm happy! I really am! Life is awesome and full of friends and good prose and bountiful ideas and joy! But still. Augh. I need to stop sleeping, maybe?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Your Friday Yes: Less Curation

I set out on a new endeavor this morning, one that is only related to writing in that everything in my life is wrapped around writing. Otherwise it's pretty unrelated. I made this:

I know that the sound and video quality kind of suck, and that the lighting is problematic (if you want to find a solution in my tiny apartment with walls colored such that my skin looks bizarre in reflected light, I'm taking bids), and that I got an audible text near the end, and that I say "um" too much. I wish I were more photogenic. But it was a scary thing to do, to record this video, and I'm proud that I did it at all. This is the face I have, and I finally thought of something to say on YouTube, and I didn't want to let fear stop me.

I hope to have more Your Friday Yes every week. I'll post them here, and do writing-oriented posts on Tuesdays. If my luck holds out.

Oh, and I'll probably buy a webcam in the next couple of weeks. :p

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Secret Project Revealed!

I know you've been scouring TMZ, stalking CNN, trying to catch hints of what this mysterious secret project could be that I've been writing on and off for a year. Wait no more.

From a post on April 11, 2013:
Lately, with no concrete story ideas, I've been thirsting to write about ghosts... 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.
That is the secret project. It's a story cycle pegged to the twelve songs on Ceremonials. It's not just wild song-tales, though; it has an overarching story about two girls at a boarding school who fall in love with each other but are not meant to be together. Not in life, anyway. Beyond the stories and characters, and even a little bit beyond honoring and echoing the music, the point for me was to experiment in manners both technical and mystical. To learn how to evoke, the same way Florence did, rather than speaking directly.

Unfortunately, I had to halt my work on it when school started. (Schoolwork has become completely overwhelming, and it's actually freaking me out a bit, but that's not what this post is about.) I've drafted ten stories out of twelve, but I know, I know, I'm going to go back and rewrite some of them partially and others totally from scratch. So my work on it isn't just beginning, exactly, but it's hard to know how far along I actually am. Nevertheless, I'm doing it, and I can't hold down my excitement about it.

I used to think this idea was stupid or weird, or that even if I did finish it no one would want to read it. I believe I was wrong on both counts. I've told a small handful of people about it and they have all been enthusiastic, even those who don't know Florence. Ekphrastic art is not an uncommon thing, so it's really not that weird. Although I've never heard of a book tied to an album like this, that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Or that I can't write it. And I finally decided that if no one wanted to read it except me, that was fine, because then I could write a book that I wanted to read, something I made that I could love, instead of making allowances and sacrifices for readability.

Writing this book/story cycle (it's not shaped up to be book-length yet, but I'm pretty sure it will be eventually) has allowed for a series of breakthroughs. Lots of things have been changing in terms of how I think about writing over the past year, but without the secret project, those changes wouldn't have been grounded in anything. The project has helped me believe, genuinely, that there is no writing for others without writing for me. It's helped me trust that I understand syntax well enough to mess around with it intensively and see what happens. It's helped me just not care about writing in ways that are too murky to explain well; of course I still care about writing, very very very deeply, but I'm not wrapped up in what's going to happen to it later to the exclusion of what occurs when it goes on the page.

Toni Morrison says that if you look around for a book you want to read, and it doesn't exist yet, you must write it. I said this to a sculptress friend and she hit me back with the words of one of her teachers: "Just make whatever you want to make." These may seem like laughably idealistic proverbs in terms of paying bills and publishing gatekeepers and how long it takes to do creative work and whatnot, but...my sculptress friend makes these fantastic outdoor installations that you can visit in public city spaces and parks. I'm writing the book I needed and badly wanted to write, and everyone who's heard about it has said I want to read that. Everything this idea has done for me has been good. It helped me seize Fictator power. It forced me to let the hell go. It saved me, this summer, from never writing again. Whatever happens to this project in the world, putting it into the world has been invaluable.

So make whatever you want to make. That's how inspiration ripples from Flo to me, from me to you. Sing out. Write on. Go.

never knew I was a dancer till Delilah showed me how 

Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Things I learned over the Labor Day weekend I spent in Ojai with Lidia Fuckin' Yuknavitch and Jennifer Fuckin' Pastiloff:
1. Lidia will give you writing prompts and writing guidance that don't resemble anything I've seen anywhere. I can't share them with you because it wouldn't be fair to her. But if you're bored by the same old advice with slight variations you get in workshops and craft classes and so on, seek her out. She's sly and brilliant and possibly the most complete person I've ever met.

2. Jen is one of the more unusual yoga teachers I've ever obeyed with my body's movements, and easily the most inspiring. Get into her. She has more love than the sun.

3. I need retreats like these on a regular basis.

4. I am a fiction writer. I'm not a memoirist. I can't resist being a storyteller of my own life in conversation, but every time we got a writing prompt I kept wanting to make things up. This was not a retreat away from some fearful truth, but a desire to seek truth through something I could shape more freely than my memory.

5. [extremely personal admission].
I want to share two pieces of writing I did this weekend. The first is what I wrote in response to a prompt about the most recent thing I did that scared me. I didn't have to think long: the scary thing was the short story I wrote on Wednesday, one week ago. I had no clue what I was up to - I was feeling my way, with those handrails - and I was frightened to bits about whether it was good or not. But I had to write it to meet my workshop deadline, and out it came. Like so:
Aching hand. Empty stomach. Jaw-clench headache. This phrase, that phrase, bird by bird. No memory of this morning, yesterday, anything real before this: feeling, fingers fluttering, into the blackest parlor under my hair.

All I know is these two people: a man (a boy) and a girl - they exist in different eras; they want the same thing; one takes lives and the other gives hers. The verse of it is the other all-I-know, the sense of comma and colon, where to start and where to stop and what to place in between. Sounds, rhythm; content coming back to its feet on the second round.

The light has changed. The last time I noticed the air conditioner kicking on and off was hours ago.

Sentences have geography, they have geometry, they have abstraction and recursive hearts. Their secrets have hearts and their hearts have secrets.

Sentences like piano sonatas, like well-composed sauces, like expensive perfume, like LSD light shows, like quiet fur. Yet there is no word, no sixth or seventh or fifteenth sense, for what's behind my eyes when I shape clay into birds.

Enter clause, exit clause. David. Lidia. The weight of it, the length, the beating drum. My blood and bones and gray matter, the composition of my aliveness.

The composition. Composition. Compose. Compose.

"Write fearless sentences." -Katharine Coldiron

So that might be kind of a journal entry rather than a real thing, but I'm sharing it more or less to tell you that I wrote this story, which I think is called "The First Snow," on Wednesday and I can't wait to read and revise it. I experienced many synonyms of fear while writing it, but I set them aside and kept going. Bird by bird.

The other piece is something I read aloud on the last day. Jen asked me to put it into the world. I wasn't satisfied with posting it on Facebook (too ephemeral), so I'm placing it here instead. The prompt was the two-part question "What gets in my way the most? And what the fuck am I going to do about it?"

I knew, instantly, that the answer to a) was the idea that I don't know enough. That I don't have enough education or knowledge. This notion leads me to all kinds of unnecessary decisions and actions. I wrote what follows in answer to b), but because no one was recording, you'll have to imagine me stamping my foot and roaring it at a room of 39 other women:
Write anyway. Write the shit. Write the Shinola. Write the funny and the tragic. Write the signifiers and the signifieds, the transcendental signified, the middles and the edges, the me and the everyone else. Write the heart that you don't have. Write the music made by others. Write it all, all you can, and in that is the knowing. In that is the knowing. Go to school if you want. Keep learning always. But mostly write on, and in that is the knowing. And so it is. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Mastery Is Boring

Yesterday morning I had an interesting dream about family, romance, a disturbed peace in the wee hours in a house full of people, a bell tower, a skinned rabbit, a snowy walk, and some other things. I'm hopeful that I can turn this madness into a story that's at least semi-coherent, because my first workshop is three weeks from yesterday and the only idea I had before this dream was too weird for workshop. (Maybe. We'll see after a few stories have come through the class.) Despite anxiety about not having written a standalone short story in over a year (!?!?), and the sense that I may be stuck not striking out into the experimentation I want to try because this idea doesn't suit it, I'm kind of looking forward to this story. It might be something good. I have lots of options for how to approach it, so I'm in the process of narrowing them down.

Yet I don't feel good at all about starting on something new before I've finished the last two stories of the secret project. It saved me, this project, and it was going so intriguingly and well, and I don't want to leave it behind unfinished. Even after the drafts of the last two stories are done, it won't be anywhere near finished, but right now, were the secret project a sculpture of Athena, I'd be leaving a humanish figure shaped out of rough clay with only one leg. It won't do. But I don't think I can write two stories and draft a third this week, in part because it's a short week, because I'm doing something amazing over Labor Day.

I drafted part of a post about the broad and odd concept of "favorite" in the hope of explaining my Labor Day plans, but it kept coming out dull and I'm too excited about the plans to stick them in something dull, so I'll just tell you: it's a writing and yoga retreat with my favorite living writer, Lidia Yuknavitch, and a yoga instructor named Jennifer Pastiloff. It's in Ojai, which is only about an hour north of where I live. I feel as if someone designed this workshop specifically for me, former yoga teacher and lifelong writer, and I'm still awed that I get to do it. I'll be staying in a yurt for the second time in my life, and this time, crickets of California, I will be bringing earplugs.

So. Although I wish I could spend all weekend with my head in my notebook, finishing this project to which I owe so much and getting going on the next adventure, I will either have to manage those thousands of words on the weeknights (while doing oodles of other homework), or I'll have to set the secret project aside and just work on the story that's attached to a deadline.

From Toothpaste for Dinner by Drew. This doesn't resemble my creative process much, because
I am insufferably well-prepared most of the time, but I love it all the same.

I've been listening to Elizabeth Gilbert's new podcast, Magic Lessons. I suspect the whole endeavor is rigged as an advertisement for the book she's got coming out later in September, but it's also a nice short podcast that fills in the gaps on my commute. She's a thoughtful and big-hearted person, and though I don't love the podcast, each installment has given me at least one little gem, a creative tip or standby that I need to remember or use when I'm writing.

The most recent episode's gem was "Mastery is boring." Yes. True. Once you have attained mastery of a subject, you're not striving anymore, not hungry anymore, and a lot of interest and motivation to keep at the subject goes kaput. I hear this and get it and believe it is true, but there's a but. Non-mastery is a good thing, since there's always more to learn and life's about the journey and yadda yadda, but it's also kind of disheartening for a person who never feels like she moves beyond intermediacy at anything. In creativity, in general, is there ever a moment of arrival? A safe, high plateau where I can look at the view, get a drink of water, breathe, feel content?

I've thought about this with regard to The New Yorker Short Story, and/or The MFA Short Story, which, as I read more and more of them, I realize I have little interest in writing. I have tried to imitate them, and I can do so with okayish results, but I don't enjoy reading them very much and I really don't enjoy writing them. The Joycean epiphanic short story, the Carver minimalist short story - these forms are just not what I like about writing. I know I'm drawn more to the novel, or to the story cycle, than to individual stories (and I know it's part of the reason I don't write stories especially well: that my bent is to novelist rather than storyist), but even when I do want to write stories instead of novels, this overwhelmingly dominant form of story is something that I could feel fine with mastering and then leaving behind for warmer climes.

But do I even want to try to master it? Wouldn't that be boring?
Game designers have already made significant strides to solve this problem by controlling players' mastery in stages. Which is why when I started to talk to Matt about this podcast gem he went "well, yeah" and told me how he and his co-workers build levels.

I guess that brings me back around to where I started this post: the story I need to write for workshop on the 21st. At this point I think I'm going to write it straight, like The MFA Short Story, but (again) that would not be very interesting for me so it might not turn out that way. I admit I don't know what the stories look like that I want to write, but I do know they look nothing like Carver and not a lot like what generally appears in the New Yorker. I don't think I can find an undiscovered country in fiction - few can - but I hope to find a milieu where apprenticing doesn't seem quite so tedious.