Sunday, July 24, 2016

Big Questions Circulate

As I write this, it's Sunday afternoon, my favorite time to sit at home and watch stupid movies. Instead, I'm sitting in Panera eating a chicken salad sandwich with a knife and fork. Every now and then I move my right arm and wince.

I know how I got here, but the utter discomfort with which I inhabit my body is still way beyond the norm.

1. The fake acrylic teeth covering my own make it risky and extremely unpleasant to bite into anything. Everything gets cut into small pieces and shoveled into the way-back of my mouth. I've been eating a lot of soup and I think I'm becoming anemic.

2. I got my Tom Servo tattoo finished on Friday. The anesthetic goo I used beforehand didn't really work, and it felt like my skin was being flayed off by the end. I think I actually have bruising. This is not the fault of my artist, whom I love and who just wants to put beautiful work on me, but the pain has stayed fresh a bit longer than usual.

3. Our air conditioner broke on Saturday afternoon. It's been in the mid-nineties (Fahrenheit) for the last few days, and it easily gets that hot in our apartment even on less-hot days because of the way the sun falls on our roof. On Sunday I tried as hard as I could to cope with the climbing temperature, the increasing sensation of being in an oven, but when no one had come to fix it by 2 PM and it was actually ninety actual degrees in my apartment, I gave it up and fled to Panera. I was sleepy and hot and immobile at home (anemia? carbon monoxide? hysteria of the skin?), and I felt better once I'd been sitting in a civil temperature and had some smoothie and a sandwich in me. Even if I did have to eat the latter with a knife and fork.

4. The L.A. neighborhood where I live is the closest one in the city limits to Santa Clarita, where a massive brush fire has been raging uncontrollably for the past few days. The sky looked like this on Saturday:

(See the harsh bright-sun shadows on the building across from me? And the scary wrath-of-God sky at the same time? That's Los Angeles. It is the strangest place. I don't want to live anywhere else, though. That very night, Matt and I went to the Hollywood Bowl to see Weird Al as a birthday gift to him. It was very, very hot, but I always have so much fun at the Bowl, even in crappy seats. Outdoors is the best place to hear music.)

The point is, the proximity of this brush fire makes me more uncomfortable than the usual fire-season hubbub. It troubles me. I have friends who are displaced and worried about their cats.

I just cut my pickle in four pieces before I could eat it.

It is a weird time.

Maybe all this weirdness in my body explains why I have, more often than usual, been having The Snap-Back Sensation here and there throughout my days. Do you have this? A moment of consciousness where you suddenly feel all the intensity of being alive in the world, the tug of gravity on your bones, the friction of clothing and air molecules on your skin, the genuine oddness of inhabiting a vessel made of meat? It's like someone has metaphysically slapped you upside the head to get you to stop your hysterics, and whammo, you are ALIVE. All these big questions circulate in your head, which can be disorienting if you're in the middle of doing something else. What even is consciousness? Is consciousness distinct from the soul? Who decided that sentience should live in this strange decaying thing enveloped by a flexible, delicate substance that no one can properly replicate as yet?

Why did our air conditioning break on one of the hottest weekends of the summer? Why does it take three weeks for a laboratory to fabricate my new veneers? Why was I blessed with a whole booth at Panera to myself when usually Matt and I are shoved into a table in the corner?

There's big weird stuff going on in the wider world, too, in case you haven't noticed. It's not my responsibility to think or write about those things too critically, but sheesh. Tragedy or farce or both, depending on your perspective and what lines on the map you live inside. I do not know what is up. I just want things to be normal again. Chicken Littledom is not my favorite place to live.

Some small news about writing: I got an acceptance, which per my usual policy I won't say much about yet, except yay. I'm trying to put together a collection based on a weird idea that continues to be fruitful despite itself, and if I had the wherewithal to sit down and be physically comfortable long enough to put words on the page, I think I could do it. I revised the secret project a little and sent it to another round of readers.

That's all for now. The fall semester approacheth. Maybe by then my body will feel a little more like my own.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Tooth Truths

Yesterday I sat in a dentist's chair for two hours while they chiseled off the plastic coverings on six of my teeth and the enamel on two more. I was floating on an echoing, delicious, acid jazz-filled cloud of nitrous oxide the whole time, so I couldn't have cared less. (I don't think I've ever had nitrous before. I would remember. The experience reminded me why I stay a strict distance away from drugs: because altered states are everything I want to be, and I would never stop if I ever started.) This is the second-to-last step in a journey that started when I was a very young girl, allergic to non-tooth-staining antibiotics, and continued through adolescence, when a different dentist chiseled off the stained enamel on my teeth with NO drugs involved (I still have vivid memories of the smell, the sound, the sensation), through estimates of how much it would cost to replace the decaying plastic that stood between my bones and everything I ate and drank and smiled at, through a patch job in Maryland, through worrying at my wedding that my unpretty teeth would be noticeable in pictures - and into mid-August, when porcelain with which I'll be buried will be affixed in eight places in my mouth.

That's a defamiliarization-ridden way of saying I'm getting my plastic veneers replaced with porcelain ones. Yesterday was the first session, where they stripped off the old stuff. I have a picture of what my teeth looked like under there, taken at my hazy request, but given the commonality of dental phobias, I'm not going to insert it here.

Instead, here's a guinea pig wearing a sombrero. 

I have so many thoughts and feelings about how this all went down and is going down that an essay about it is certain to come out of my fingers (and I think I just wrote a paragraph of that). You'd be surprised how much personal history is wrapped up with my teeth, how strong my opinions are about what I'm paying to have done to my smile. But for now I simply want to explain, to those who know me in real life, why I'm so grumpy today and why I'll be eating a lot of room-temperature soup and smoothies for the next couple of weeks.

The "temporaries" they gave me are really just an acrylic mouthguard that was melted onto my teeth. The hygenist compared it to Lee Press-On Nails, and the comparison is apt. It looks a little weird (especially up close) and feels awful. According to my dentist I can pretty much eat like normal, but doing so feels dreadful, so I'm going to stick with soft, swallowable-whole foods for as long as I can stand it.

That's all for today. Take a moment, whatever you're currently going through, and be grateful that your yesterday did not involve the procedure I had yesterday. I would not wish it on anyone.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Did It Go?

Last Saturday, July 9, I taught my first writing workshop. By popular demand, this post will break down that experience.

In brief, it went well. I had four attendees, and all of them were friends of mine, although only two were friends of each other. My agenda ended up shorter than the allotted time, but I added something on the fly that I think was actually more popular and useful than the planned activities. Funnily enough, the only pre-anxiety I allowed in about the workshop was "what if I have too much time and not enough activities?" In reply to that anxiety, I said, well, I'll make something up and do better next time. Et voila, that is what happened. Way to knock out that anxiety, me.

At first I was disappointed that the attendees were all friends, that I had no friends-of-friends or total strangers who wanted to learn from me, but I realize that my name is not Elizabeth Gilbert. And if the publishing butter-churn has taught me nothing else, it's taught me that you have to build a platform in order to find success in these kinds of ancillary writerly activities. Ultimately it was probably better that everyone in the room walked in expecting to support me and have a good time rather than expecting to be impressed by me. (This cool thing happened, too: my friends found each other interesting. I watched it happen. I was so pleased by this, so personally gratified. It makes me look forward to big parties with a bunch of friends who don't know each other rather than dreading them.)

So many people gave me encouragement ahead of time. I felt like I had a little cheerleading squad. I'm not saying that to show off, but instead to express amazement and gratitude. I had no idea when I announced the workshop that so many people across the country would remember when and that I was doing it, and would drop me an email or a Facebook post to say good luck and woot woot. It was pretty fantastic.

In completely unrelated trivia, I own this movie. It's terrible and awesome. 

And a similar number of people have been asking me how it went. The most useful conversation I had about how it went was with my mother, who teaches when she's not revitalizing scholarship on early print technologies. She asked me how this workshop varied from teaching yoga. I told her that teaching yoga tired me out, because I felt like I was giving myself away, whereas this gave me energy because the attendees were offering me their ideas and effort. I felt like we were sharing in each other's creativity, and I was just guiding. Part of this might be influenced by the radically new-to-me pedagogy I saw in action last semester in Dr. Higgs's class, but hey, so much the better.

I felt like we were doing a group project, but I was in charge, telling everyone which way we were going and calling out the purpose of each exercise. Which, for me and my ego, is pretty much the ideal situation: we're all making something together, but I'm the boss. (It would be dishonest to ignore this unpalatable insight about myself.)

The other thing I told Mom was that it was a lot easier to tell when the attendees didn't like what I was doing with them than it was in a yoga class. In yoga, you have to read body language and interpret breathing sounds in order to determine if the students want to murder you for including standing split or asking for another vinyasa. In this situation, the tale is told by people's faces, or whether/how they are putting pen to paper, or how they greet your request to hear what they wrote. It was much more obvious how my ideas were greeted. Reading the general energy of the room was harder than with yoga, or my intuition on that is really rusty.

Seems legit

Mom asked me about the different levels of mastery in the room and how that made a difference when teaching either thing. I said that in a writing workshop I was able to direct a broader conversation about too-hard or too-simple or irrelevant concepts, while in an all-levels yoga class I'd go over to a beginning student and give individual help or direction. The different levels and approaches in the room were a little challenging for me to cope with in the writing workshop, but in a yoga class they can be physically dangerous to the student. Navigating the problem in these two contexts just seemed different rather than one being preferable.

In the end, two of the attendees cried, so I'd call that a successful writing workshop. I'm only sort of joking. Writing cuts deep. It's supposed to. I had so much fun that I want to do it again as soon as possible, but I don't know where I'm going to scrounge up more friends to come, so I think I'll wait until the fall. Anyone interested?

Friday, July 8, 2016

Cue the Berets and the Wine

A few weeks ago, I submitted the Kathy Ireland story to a market, and almost immediately I got an email back from one of the editors asking me whether I considered it fiction or nonfiction. I had no idea how to answer this question. The real answer is for us to sit around with wine, in our berets, and talk until someone has to go pay the babysitter. But that's stupid and pretentious and inefficient to tell an editor, someone who probably just wants to forward my submission to the appropriate slusher.

By wordcount, the Kathy Ireland story (let's shorten it to KIS) is nonfiction. Most of its 1,600 words consist of me narrating about film and my experience at an opera, and all of those parts are either true or my true opinions. Then there's about 500 words of fiction: two sections of me imagining the interior thoughts of Kathy and of Meryl Streep.

After I finished writing, I wasn't sure myself whether it was fiction or nonfiction. My tendency is to think that a shred of fiction, of the intentionally invented, paints the entire work with that hue of literary endeavor. You apply Photoshop to a picture, bang, it's Photoshopped; you can't be a little bit pregnant. On the other hand, the KIS is, really is, nonfiction, for the most part, in a way that's important to me. I strained to tell as much of the truth as I could in the KIS, in a way that was new to me when I wrote it last spring but which has become closer to a default mode as I've written more stories like it.

I still call it a story in my mind, because calling it an essay would be disingenuous and calling it "this weird thing I wrote" is not very professional. When I describe and/or submit it and similar stories, I've been calling them "hybrid essays", a pretty and approximate term that doesn't mean all that much outside of academia and a small cadre of writers like Maggie Nelson.

A growing part of me is simply uninterested in how work like this is categorized. I'm interested in what other people will say about it, but in an intellectual rather than a personal way (like, cue the berets and the wine, I got no babysitter to pay). I don't have much invested in the labels that gatekeepers will put on the KIS and work like it. I get the need for that kind of labeling, because I know firsthand that it's impossible to figure out where to find Maggie Nelson in a given bookstore. Such labels, failing all else, are a practical necessity. I'm fine with that, I comprehend that, I haven't a whisper of anarchy in my personality and you couldn't convince me that there should just be a single label of BOOKS under which everything is tossed alphabetically. Definitely not.

But how I think of myself as a writer just isn't involved in such a calculation. I always try to tell the truth, and whether that's a literal truth which has a set of, let's say, journalistic standards to which I need to hold myself, or a life-truth that is best communicated using situations and characters and ideas that I made up - more and more, now, it's all the same to me.

What I have to say seems to demand that I cross the streams. So be it. I read Nelson's Jane: A Murder last week, and it felt so much richer for combining poetry and nonfiction, much more so than a normal prose book about the same material would have been. That's something I could stand to hear about my work.

But it won't be said about the KIS anytime soon. It got rejected by the market that wanted to know what I considered it.

My reply said that by word count it was nonfiction, but it did have a little fiction in it. And I apologized for not being able to answer the question properly. The real answer is that I want the reader to consider the work herself and tell me what she thinks. What I think of my work is unsurprising; I live inside my head full-time and am reasonably aware of my opinions. What others think of my work is much more interesting to me.

In fact, I'm extremely curious to know where other writers and readers draw the line between fiction and nonfiction. Do you, too, have this idea that one stitch of fiction makes the whole hem fake? Do you think that essays which stretch the truth, like John D'Agata's famously do, should be named fiction instead?