Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Year of the Journeyman

On December 15 I posted this picture on Facebook, with the caption "Thank you, Kristi, for making me popular."

Two friends (# s 10 and 11) were also on the list, which is nice.

Circulation-wise, Entropy is not the New Yorker, but honestly I'd prefer to be popular at Entropy.

I noted in the comments of this Facebook post that the ninth Books I Hate interview, with duncan b. barlow, was coming soon. When I counted back to realize that yes, it was the ninth, that I had coaxed nine published writers to talk to me about books they disliked, and then had published the results on a site that has well over 10,000 followers on Twitter - when I thought about how close this interview series came to never happening at all - when I realized that I'd made this idea up out of nothing and it'd become something real, something with nine notches on it and many more to come - and then when I thought about all the other belts I'd added notches to over the course of 2017 - I got overwhelmed and I had to stop thinking about it until I had more room.

Here's the room. The empty blog post window, right here.

There's this concept in publishing I didn't understand for a long time: the "emerging writer". I thought at first that this simply meant any writer, any writer at all, who was not famous, or making money with her writing, but who was trying sincerely to get published at any level. Obviously, this definition covers a lot of ground. Later I learned that "emerging" means a specific category of unfamous writers: those who are starting to get publication in larger magazines, who are starting to get attention for their writing from strangers, who have maybe gotten an MFA or a book contract or a few contest prizes, but who are not "established" writers, or people whose authority as writers is worth attention.

I am bothered that there's no category prior to "emerging" for people who have written some stuff but haven't heard "yes" enough times to fully emerge. I've spent ten years writing, but 2017 is the year I am sliding into the "emerging" category. Who was I before that? Was I still cocooned? That seems unfair; I worked hard to be a writer all that time, but "emerging" was decided by someone else (really a whole lot of someone elses), not me.

Skilled trades have different categories for "apprentice" and "journeyman", and that seems way better than the categories of "--" and "emerging". Less insulting, less vague, no aroma of futility or tautology.

Here are some aspects of my experience as a journeyman in 2017:
  • I wrote an email to an established editor asking for advice. 
  • I felt sure that my interview series was a good idea even though people told me it wasn't. 
  • I asked for galleys of forthcoming books. 
  • I applied for half a dozen full-time editorial jobs and half a dozen more unpaid jobs as columnist, editor, reviewer. I applied for half a dozen fellowships. 
  • I treated pitching and reviewing like a job. 
  • I learned to pitch anyway, even if I didn't think I had time or if I felt scared to. To treat editors like human beings instead of scary, naysaying gods. 
  • I stopped thinking it was me when they said no. 
  • I hustled like hell during the last few months of the year. I researched markets like crazy and pitched endlessly. 
  • I thought big: David Shields as subject, the Sun as market. 
As a result:
  • I got it. 
  • It was. 
  • Because of previous reviews I wrote, I got them. 
  • I didn't get any of them, not one. 
  • I got paid for some of my reviews. 
  • I landed a lot of those pitches. 
  • I considered it a combination of me and not-me when they said yes. 
  • The more I hustled, the better I did. The more I thought toward audience for nonfiction, the better I did. 
  • Most of the biggest stuff didn't come to fruition, but some of the second biggest stuff did. 
  • And, symbolically, I had too many publications in a single week to reasonably share them all on Facebook. 
I leaned on my contacts without shame. I never would've reviewed The Book of Joan, a review that on its own opened many doors for me, if a friend hadn't asked me to. About two weeks ago I recorded an insanely long interview with a writer known by many in avant-garde circles, and I have hopes of placing the result somewhere good on the strength of his name, not mine. I emailed my conceptual novel to a friend with a much more expansive knowledge of small presses than I have, and he mentioned a press I never would've known about that looks just right. I'm planning to ask a friend about manuscript review at a press that doesn't accept unsolicited submissions, but where he knows people. [redacted because the first rule of Fight Club is you don't talk about Fight Club], which got me most of the galleys and therefore most of the reviews I've had published. Reviews didn't come directly out of that, though - it was my pitches, endless endless pitches.

In considering my success in 2017, though, I keep coming back to the interviews. I'd had the idea for Books I Hate since late 2016, when my friend Chris asked me if I wanted to do an interview series for Entropy. I told him I didn't know anything about interviewing people and I wasn't sure I should. He coaxed me into agreeing to the series, but when I told him my idea for the theme, he seemed dubious. He was worried the interviews would be too negative. (Many of the writers I've approached turned me down because of this same anxiety.) I believed that I could figure out a way for writers to talk about books that got on their nerves that would reveal something important about the writers' personalities, and even perhaps the kind of writer they were, without just slagging on books that they thought sucked. Part of the theory of art I've been developing for half a decade now is that art we don't like influences us as much or more as art we do like, and here was my chance to show it. 

Now, nine interviews later, I still agree with myself. And even though Chris brought the ability to implement the series, the place for publication, to me, I thought up the idea and approached the authors and wrote and polished the interviews. I did that. I made that. From nothing. It emerged from me. 

Maybe that's what "emerging" means. That the work is starting to come out of its cocoon. That I feel confident enough, now, that something useful will happen when I sit down to the notebook. 


I've shared with friends that I feel uncomfortable with everything good that's happened to me in 2017 simply because it's happened in 2017. For many, this has been an abysmal year, with curtailment of rights, serious ideological schisms, little progress on infrastructure, and unjust death after unjust death from guns and drugs and fires and bombs. But I can't ignore all the good things. At least half of the total publications I list on my website happened in 2017, most of them in the latter part of the year. I got a nibble from an agent for the KUFC novel and positive feedback on my book proposal. I completed an unexpected novel, half a dozen in-depth essays and stories, and more reviews than I can even count right now. I made a writing newsletter, because I had enough news to warrant a letter for the first time. All that stuff in bullet points above, and all the stuff on my website.

It keeps accelerating. There will be workshops and publications in 2018. I hope, I wish, I grit my teeth and pray there will be a book contract (I'm circulating four manuscripts and hope to finish one, perhaps two others). There will be more teaching, and maybe there'll be teaching for money, if I'm lucky. I am uncomfortable with this kind of success, because of the year and because I am inordinately afraid of things tumbling down (what if it's been Lady Fortune instead of me being any good? what if I'm not emerging, but still just --? what if I'm getting cocky and all this is stupid small potatoes and I sound like a total idiot? what if I can't pay my student loans? what if I never get a fellowship?). But I shall stride onward, not letting up, not looking back, a journeyman on the road to Oz.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Books I Read in 2017

It's possible that I'm doing this to show off, I'll come out with that up front. But if I can try to step back and use myself as an example: as a writer, you should be prepared to read a LOT. Voraciously and omnivorously. Poetry, nonfiction, avant-garde, pulp, scholarship, everything. Read it all and then get back to me if you still want to be a writer.

The reason I am nominally doing this is because I realized I've never done it before on this blog. I keep a paper-based book journal where I write brief impressions of everything I read and I always count up my books at the end of the year, but I've never taken the time to list and organize them. This was a more-than-average year for me as a reader (for half of it I was no longer getting a master's degree for the first time in a few years). Last year I read 72 books; this year it looks like about 120. In 2017, as compared to past years, I read more extremely short books and more poetry, and I audiobooked very efficiently, so that's part of why this list is so long. Another part is how book reviewing kicked me in the flank to read more toward the end of the year.

Here is a list of most of what I read in 2017, alpha by author. The starred ones I read part of and gave up, or didn't read word for word (anthologies or similar). I stopped keeping my journal diligently in August and tried to reconstruct it all in November, but I'm positive I missed a few. 

Fiction:

Abani, Chris - The Secret History of Las Vegas*
barlow, duncan b. - The City, Awake
Bowles, Paul - The Sheltering Sky
Brandeis, Gayle - The Book of Dead Birds
Burnside, Matthew - Postludes
Butler, Octavia - Kindred
Cain, Amina - Creature
Dickens, Charles - Our Mutual Friend
Ferrante, Elena - The Days of Abandonment
Fritz, Marianne - The Weight of Things
Halasa, Malu - Mother of All Pigs
Harrison, A.S.A. - The Silent Wife
Harrison, Kathryn - Thicker than Water
Haskell, John - American Purgatorio
Haskell, John - Out of My Skin
Jones, James - From Here to Eternity
Kang, Han - The Vegetarian
Kasai, Kirsten Imani - The House of Erzulie
Karr, Mary - The Art of Memoir
Kearns, Rosalie Morales - Kingdom of Women
Leddy, Annette - Earth Still
Lee, Mira T. - Everything Here is Beautiful
Mandel, Emily St. John - Station Eleven
McCullers, Carson - The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Metalious, Grace - Return to Peyton Place
Metalious, Grace - No Adam in Eden
Metalious, Grace - The Tight White Collar
Moshfegh, Ottessa - Eileen
Munro, Alice - Julieta
Rhys, Jean - Good Morning, Midnight
Robbins, Tom - Still Life with Woodpecker*
Ruocco, Joanna - The Week
Ruocco, Joanna - Dan
Schumacher, Julie - Dear Committee Members
Smith, Ali - How to Be Both
Szilágyi, Anca L. - Daughters of the Air
Tiller, Carl Frode - Encircling 1
Williams, John - Stoner
Yuknavitch, Lidia - The Book of Joan

Nonfiction:

Anderson, Alice - Some Bright Morning, I'll Fly Away
Brandeis, Gayle - Fruitflesh
Brandeis, Gayle - The Art of Misdiagnosis
Brooks, Louise - Lulu in Hollywood
Crawford, Christina - Mommie Dearest
Einstein, Sarah - Mot
Goldsmith, Barbara - Other Powers
Grealy, Lucy - Autobiography of a Face
Hall, Lynn K. - Caged Eyes
Hare, Robert - Without Conscience
Hollars, B.J. - In Defense of Monsters
Jacobson, Mark - The Lampshade
Klebold, Sue - A Mother's Reckoning
Lovell, Mary S. - The Sisters
MacDonald, Helen - H is for Hawk
Peckham, Joel - Body Memory
Roy, Simon - Kubrick Red
Sicherman, Claire - Imprint
Solnit, Rebecca - The Faraway Nearby
Vance, J.D. - Hillbilly Elegy
Washuta, Elissa - My Body Is a Book of Rules
Wunker, Erin - Notes from a Feminist Killjoy
Yuknavitch, Lidia et al. - The Misfit's Manifesto

Poetry:

Anderson, Alice - The Watermark
Benavides, Denise - Split
Berdeshevsky, Margo - Before the Drought
Božičević, Ana - Joy of Missing Out
Brandeis, Gayle - The Selfless Bliss of the Body
Campbell, Erik - The Corpse Pose
Carson, Anne - If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
Choi, Chiwan - The Yellow House
Firestone, Jennifer - Gates & Fields*
Forché, Carolyn - Blue Hour
Glück, Louise - A Village Life*
Hancock, Jennifer Rane - Between Hurricanes
Kaplan, Genevieve - In the ice house
Knorr, Alyse - Copper Mother
Knorr, Alyse - Annotated Glass
Lewis, Robin Coste - Voyage of the Sable Venus
Molotkov, A. - The Catalog of Broken Things
Morgan, Bill - The Art of Salvage
Myles, Eileen - I Must Be Living Twice*
Novo, Salvador - Confetti Ash
Pessin, S.E. - Thank You for Listening
Piazza, Jessica - Interrobang
Rebele-Henry, Brynne - Fleshgraphs
Savage, Claudia T. - Bruising Continents
Vuong, Ocean - Night Sky with Exit Wounds
Whittall, Zoe - The Emily Valentine Poems

Cross-genre:

Ali, Kazim - Bright Felon
Asuncion, Hossannah - Object Permanence
Cusk, Rachel - Outline
Day, Dalton - Exit, Pursued
de Vigan, Delphine - Nothing Holds Back the Night
Dorantes, Dolores - Style
Dworkin, Craig & Kenneth Goldsmith - Against Expression*
Ervick, Kelcey Parker - The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová
Friedlander, Christine - Avant Gauze
Gladman, Renee - Event Factory
Greenberg, Arielle - Locally Made Panties
H.D. - Kora and Ka*
Haake, Katharine - That Water, Those Rocks
Haake, Katharine - Assumptions We Might Make About the Postworld
Haskell, John - The Complete Ballet
Higgs, Christopher - As I Stand Living
Higgs, Christopher - The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney
Higgs, Christopher with Blake Butler & Vanessa Place - One
Ives, Lucy - The Hermit
Léger, Nathalie - Suite for Barbara Loden
Markson, David - Reader's Block
Millman, Debbie - Self-Portrait as Your Traitor
Myles, Eileen - Afterglow
Ortiz, Wendy - Hollywood Notebook
Ortiz, Wendy - Bruja
Rankine, Claudia - Don't Let Me Be Lonely
Warren, Alli - I Love It Though
Whitener, Brian - Face Down
Wright, C.D. - The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All
Zambreno, Kate - Heroines

Books I expect to finish before December 31:

Herbert, Julián - Tomb Song (update: yep)
Sebald, W.G. - The Rings of Saturn (update: yep)
Bernhard, Thomas - Correction (update: nope, it was more complex than its page count)
Fink, Joseph & Jeffrey Cranor - It Devours! (update: yep)
Update: I also finished Coulter, Kristi - Nothing Good Can Come from This and G'Sell, Eileen - Life After Rugby

Some sads: no Georgette Heyer on the list this year, and virtually no sci-fi. No Atwood. Happies: almost as much cross-genre as fiction, which is appropriate since it's what I'm trying to do as a writer. Very few Great White Males: Paul Bowles and James Jones, and Dickens, and I think that's it. (Does Bowles even count?) Jones was my Big Book this year, and I'm really glad I read him.

I plowed through all of Grace Metalious's output, and the only good book was the original Peyton Place (which I read last year). Save your strength and don't bother with the other stuff.

I also read five of Dorothy's 16 books so far. I love so much what they're doing. Their books all have an especial quality that I can't really put my finger on, something slightly alien and aggressive about the language, and it's mesmerizing.

Various people, in various contexts, have said "You must read really fast!" I don't think I do. But I don't watch television, and I commute six hours a week (was 10 hours a week for much of the year). Sinking most of that time into reading/listening instead, I do pretty well. I read about a page a minute on most print layouts, which means a 300-page book, one that really hooks me, takes...what, five hours? Closer to six, probably. That doesn't seem really fast to me.

It amazes me that I failed to finish three books of poetry, when poetry books are usually so short. But the Glück was such a snoozer I couldn't keep at it, the Firestone was doing something I totally didn't understand (but which a friend, a Dickinson expert, loved), and the Myles was a compendium of decades of her work and I was reading it to procrastinate writing a review of her memoir and so I finally gave it up after 170 pages and got down to business.

Favorites? Impossible to say. What you'll like depends on who you are, not who I am, and some of these altered the way I was writing and thinking even though I liked them less than others (Heroines, for example). By that same token, the fact that I read it does not mean I endorse it; many of these I found mediocre and some of them I roundly disliked. But I'd love to talk to you about them, anyway.

TBR shelf (partial) 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Mostly Bullet Points, Some Filler

First, in case you missed it:
Three more reviews have been accepted but not run; a fourth has been accepted but not yet written; a fifth has been written but not yet accepted. I like books.

Also, I put up a six-word story on Medium the other day.

It seems like book reviews and reading therefor are all that's kept me from sleeping through the days I have off. The world is hard to bear right now (fires, literal and figurative) and I am tired and processing the last of jet lag and fighting off viruses from all sides. I'm writing largely on deadline instead of writing ahead, and the time I don't spend on deadline is spent reading and pitching. (The one is lovely and the other is exhausting.)

To keep me honest, here's a list of projects I need to work on for the rest of December and in the year ahead. It's a long list because I'm so behind on everything except reviews. This is about half stuff I should've been working on since summer; some of it is definitely for 2018's spring or even summer, not now; some of it is new to me as of fall 2017 but I should've started on it by now.

  • Essay involving Gayle's book
  • Zine (written)
  • Essay about Five Million Years to Earth (solicited)
  • Essay about a film that never was (solicited)
  • Bits and pieces story for the Cupboard (not solicited) 
  • Celebrity story for Enumerate (not solicited)
  • Casablanca novel
  • Conceptual novel 
  • Essay about blurry love
  • Medium story about YA
  • Medium story about eating disorder
  • Essay about Apocalypse Now
  • Essay about Jeanne Dielman
  • Essay about Last Tango in Paris
  • Collaborative thing with Higgs (part done) 
  • Outline for Plan 9 novella
  • Outlines for two workshops (happening by March)
  • Book reviews: nine (9) for now, more next year, surely
  • Endless, self-renewing pitches and queries and proposals and submittals for essays, stories, book reviews, craft book, Highbinder, secret project, whatever else I finish
  • Put together writing about the following topics:
  1. The tree where I left the blue stone
  2. Visit to Santa Fe and all I saw
  3. The Salton Sea and the St. Andrews Cathedral
  4. Trip to Oregon and the fires there
  5. Meow Wolf
  • Interviews with
  1. Duncan
  2. Samantha
  3. Tomas
  4. People who haven't gotten back to me
  5. Whoever else says yes, later
Damn, that is a long list. No wonder I'm stressed out.

Maybe this is a moment for me to reiterate how I work. Once I get going, I am a fast writer, and according to an external observer I'm a very fast reader (though I don't tend to think so). I can turn around a read and review for a book in about a week. When I'm writing other stuff, I need several months (how many of them depends on the project) to get my thoughts together, but once they are together I can write an essay in just a few sittings. For example, "The Girl on the Bike" came together very quickly, in two drafts a couple weeks apart, but I'd been thinking about the stuff in it for years. I wrote Highbinder (93,000 words) in I think five or six months, where I know many (most?) writers take years to write books.

So even though this list looks really goddamn long, even to me, it'll take me probably a month to write, finish, or execute half of the stuff on it. Which I should really just do, in most cases, instead of sleeping and avoiding it because finishing is scary. The other stuff is longer-term, or I haven't even come up with what to write for it yet, but that's the nature of my profession: some projects cook along in the background, like beans, while others get sauteed and eaten rapidly.

Did I say finishing is scary?

I do this thing where I get hung up immediately before the finish line on a task and then dawdle and stall before doing the rest of it. This is true in all areas of life: cooking & cleaning, my day job, writing projects, reading books, correspondence, research, shopping, thank-you notes, et cetera. Like, I'll get through 47 pages of entering my attorneys' billing slips and then my brain tells me to take a break and eat something and maybe nap before doing the last three. Three pages! After I've been working two and a half hours on the first 47! Whyyyyyy do you do that, brain?

Maybe "scary" is why. If I finish, I won't know what to do with myself. I'll have to start a new task that might not go as smoothly as the almost-done one is going (since it's almost done, after all) and then I'll have to work harder (or be more anxious) and if I sit in this almost-done moment for as long as possible, I won't feel anxious or guilty or frustrated.

Yikes.

This may be an explanation, but there's no excuse for letting my to-do list get as far out of hand as the above is. Get to work, Coldiron. Butt in seat. No solitaire. No YouTube. Get that zine printed up. Update your website. Write a list. Write a pitch. Just do what you gotta.

(secret confession: I get a bit turned on when dudes do that hand-mouth gesture.)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Fate of the Kathy Ireland Story

So this thing I wrote, "Underside," showed up in Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks on November 27. I have called it "the Kathy Ireland story" many times in this blog. I wrote it after I read John Haskell's book I am not Jackson Pollock, the experience of which I've written about right here. I tried for myself the thing that Haskell did, the blending of film talk with fiction, the imagining of scenes that never were, and the result was "Underside" (which I know needs a better title but I couldn't think of one).

I wrote it with a kind of abandon I had never known in words before. I worked hard, but with the air of a joyful experiment. I had no idea what it was I'd written when I finished, but soon enough I realized I'd embarked on something meaningful.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Famous Men, Travel, Paradox, and Miscellany

My friend Ravyn told me in September that she was impressed by my ability to hold two contradictory ideas in the same hand. She called it a capacity for paradox. She also said that she thought I had not yet fully explored the power of two yet. I agree with her, inasmuch as my intellectual strength seems to come from threes instead of twos. Right now. I'm not sure about later.

This capacity for paradox is what powers an essay of mine published this week in the Offing: "Famous Men I Have Been Asked to Forgive (Abridged)". It's also what powered the original version of the essay, "Everything I Think About Woody Allen", which I threw out completely in order to write the new one. The original was more of a cinema-focused piece, more experimental, more specifically about Allen and his films than about the wearying topic of Bad Men. In between the time I submitted the original and the Offing said "sure, but can you revise it?", and now, the field of Bad Men and their deeds got wider and deeper than anyone could have imagined. So then I wrote what you see.

The revision used to open with a short discussion of Madonna, and how my father's judgment on her made me ask questions very early on about the relationship of artists to their art. I think the kind, gentle, responsive Offing editors were right to ask me to remove this, but I'm pretty sure it's going to appear somewhere else. It's illustrative.

Paradox seems to drive all my recent work. It's difficult enough to live in that I've been writing mostly book reviews lately, instead. But, for instance, an essay I'm working on (slowly, agonizingly) examines a photograph that could depict any GI, from any time period with war, but also has very specific time and place markers because of the clothes of the non-military people in it. Picking that apart is harder than considering what an author is up to in a novel or a memoir.

I write this at the tail end of a two-week trip that took me to the east coast of the US and then all around the UK, from Scotland to Wales to London. Many people have oohed and aahed over this trip when I explained it, but I've had about 50% of a good time. For the first part I was dogged by migraines, which spoiled a lot of people's fun aside from just mine, and then we had a terrible time with our travel arrangements from the US to the UK.

After that - it may surprise you to learn that November in Scotland is quite cold and wet, and that doesn't suit my disposition very well. Then we had a lot of time on trains in the week that followed, and I did not know until we were in the thick of it that Matt does not consider it fun to sit on a train for a good part of the day. (I do.) But doing so was integral to our vacation. So I felt guilty and he felt anxious and we were tired as dogs from all the trouble before we left Scotland and I had the same experience I always have when I leave home on trips that are not road trips: this is not worth the trouble it took to get here.

Until we got to Portmeirion. Which was magical. Profoundly so.

I took this picture. Click to embiggen. 

It was worth the trouble it took to get there. But - and although I am not conscious of prejudice on my part regarding this statement, there are all kinds of factors that could make me mistaken about it, such as the season or the way we came across or some other variety of cultural disjoint - the Welsh are not a very friendly people. They had this way of saying "no problem" that made it sound like "I hate you" again and again. They didn't laugh at Matt's jokes and they didn't return my smiles, and when we tried to help them with our baggage or dishes or whatnot, to smooth the way, we were treated like children trying to use the stove. No no no. Let me get that. You silly idiot. We could not figure out how to make them not hate us.

EVEN SO, Portmeirion is the second best place I've ever been (after Chautauqua, the place we chose to get married in), and I want very much to go back sometime. Maybe they'll be in better moods in the spring?

I hoped to get a lot of writing done on this trip and I did not. The countryside through which our trains cut so beautifully was too interesting, and our plans left us too little idle time that was not spent sleeping or just recovering. There's still an 11-hour plane ride ahead, but I find it very hard to concentrate on planes. On this trip, I wrote one book review, completed edits on the Offing piece, read a few books, and pitched a couple of reviews, but I'd hoped to write my next Medium piece and two more reviews as well as working on essays and the novel. Oh, well. December will be calmer, I think.

Of late my thoughts have been running too often to uninteresting topics (my weight, my wallet), and I don't always know what to say here. My work has appeared in a lot of places that make me happy and proud, but my newsletter is the self-promotion place, not this blog. I am reading interesting books and talking to interesting people, and some private things are difficult for me right now. None of that can really be communicated here. I don't know how to talk about what I'm doing without giving away what's coming next, and I don't know how to talk about what I'm feeling without being dull or hurtful. What I'm thinking keeps going into the work.

A consequence of finding publication and gaining momentum as a writer is that my thoughts don't have to go to a ground wire. They can go right to the third rail, to power the work. That's good, but it leaves this space empty.

What do you think? What would you like to see me write about here?

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Evidence, Part II

WELL. WHAT A MONTH IT'S BEEN.

I don't know if you're aware of this but I write things, and in the last several weeks I've received evidence from multiple sources that I write things pretty well. This evidence is not yet visible to the public, but if you want to know about it when it happens, subscribe to my newsletter now, and the next issue - which I think will go out during Thanksgiving week sometime - will link you to as many of them as it can.

In the meantime I wanted to write a post, because the next post is already in the can and it's going to be an examination of one of the invisible pieces of evidence, and that would be two of those posts in a row, so here's a something-else post.

And what I want to write about today is severalfold. I'm on a plane right now, having finished a book this afternoon that I'll be recommending for years, Code Name Verity-level interesting, which made me almost cry twice near the end. I want to explain about that, how it feels to not be able to cry during the majority of your waking life because of the medication you're on, and knowing that books rarely make you cry anyway because you're engaged in the language more than the experience of them (movies make you cry more easily, but...still, the medication), and still almost crying at this terrific fucking book, but seeing very well with your analytic mind that the book is too weird for the mainstream, too densely intelligent for most readers, too much and yet so astonishing that you can't even begin to strategize about reviewing it like a normal person, without making the review only three words: READ IT YOURSELF.

I'm thinking at length about this post, though. Much news has come to me in November that is just the same: stuff that Mean Brain can't explain away as not a big deal or due to favoritism. That was two years ago, nearly three, and this is now, and I thought it would take forever and now it's all happening too fast, almost too fast to enjoy.

Some days ago I put up a post on Medium, and I'll tell you why. I knew that the tentpole of it was the kind of mellow life lesson that would play well on self-improvement blogs, to broad audiences, but I did not want to go to the trouble of pitching those places and then having editors "smooth out" my writing. Basically: the same reason that people self-publish. I self-published a gleeful VC Andrews knock-off through Lulu some years ago (and I regret it, for reasons too practical to go into in this post), but I learned at that time that people generally self-publish to maintain editorial control and because they have the marketing chops (or the platform) not to need a press's help. I don't really have a platform, and I definitely have zero marketing chops. But I understand Medium, I wasn't trying to sell anything, what I'd written was short and appealing, and I have a decent social network now.

Lessons. Expertise. Hanging around and listening.


And the problem is that I have no time, I have no time, my life is exploding with opportunities and good news and books to read and people to meet and topics to write about and essays to think about and experiences to have, but what do I do about feeling unmoored and torn in two? Prioritizing writing (REALLY DOING THAT, not lip-servicing that) is one thing; truly having the physical space to unroll my creativity (such a blessing!) is a second thing; keeping the parts of my life from falling in on each other, like cards set against each other too perilously, is a completely other thing, a thing on the other side of some kind of line.

Yet I have the evidence that it is worthwhile. That it is happening, that it has its own momentum now. People are clapping for my Medium story. [redacted]. That's tangible, visible.

From certain political perspectives, the world is kind of burning down a little bit. 2017 has been a very bad year for many of my friends and loved ones. But my shit is blowing up, as the kids say, in 2017, and I feel guilty and grateful in equal measure. What do I do with that? How do I arrange my face? How do I square my next publication announcement with the next school shooting? As ever, life is all things happening at once, not tidily portioned out as in a math problem.

Enough rambling. I have work to do.

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Anatomy of an Essay

Last time we were together, I pointed you toward this essay I wrote, which the Los Angeles Review (online) saw fit to publish. I am so glad about this, because it's a very LA-steeped story, from the location to the pretentious people to the title being a riff on Joan Didion,* who's always prominent in picture collages of LA writers.

People who've read it have asked me how much of it is fictionalized. The answer is almost none. The parts where the sentences begin with "I imagine" are not true to life, and I changed a name due to circumstances too tangled to explain. But the rest I described as I saw it. You can go to the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower Street, Los Angeles, CA 90071, if you don't believe me, and see the well-dressed douchebags and vagina waterbed pods for yourself. I wrote it with a starkness, an aggressiveness, that is not my usual register, and I juxtaposed things kind of unnaturally to make a series of points, and I don't have, like, JAMA studies proving the thing about babies and yellow (though the internet has loads of information about that - I didn't just make it up). But everything I describe in the story happened the way I describe.

You can see the aforementioned pods in the left center of this photo. 

The backstory: two friends were staying at the Standard. They'd come to LA for AWP in March-April of 2016. We were joined in the restaurant by two additional friends, one in town for the same reason but staying elsewhere, the other a resident of Los Angeles; the LA friend stayed for the rooftop experience while the other friend left. That's why the numbers and names get a little jumbled. Trying to explain these circumstances artfully sounded less appealing than just letting it dangle.

The three of us, the two friends staying at the Standard and I, made much of the insane patriarchal environment of the hotel while we were there. It wasn't something I noticed, alone, afterward, and decided to explore. All of us talked about it, laughed about it, yelled about it, and all of us wrote essays. The original plan was to see if someone would publish all three of them, three different takes on the same experience. That didn't work out, alas, but I still love the idea.

I wrote mine pretty quickly, and pretty soon after the event. Not much of my usual stewing & brewing. I wrote it in time to hand it in as a final project for one of my CSUN classes in late April or early May, and I read some aloud to the class. They laughed, and gasped, and asked me how much of it was true.

Then I sent it out - only, as it happens, to the Los Angeles Review. It seemed so intrinsically an LA story that I didn't know if any of my other goal publications would give a damn about it. My memory is that I waited a while to see if my friends wanted to send their essays out too, and once that possibility closed, I'd missed the open submissions period for the LAR and had to wait a few more months. I sent it in late November of 2016, six or seven months after I finished it, and I got a positive reply in mid-June of 2017, about seven months later, and it appeared in August of 2017, not quite a year and a half after the events in it.  On this occasion I wasn't deterred by revision time; the piece was hardly edited at all from how I initially set it down. (Sometimes that happens. Usually not.)

Above: the anatomy of an essay, from inspiration to publication. I'm explaining this because I rarely have such a strong, fact- and date-based memory of how a piece came to be, and such specific detail feels helpfully illustrative to me. This was an easy go, aside from the lag time between finishing & sending and between sending & hearing back.

It isn't always so. A fraught piece I have on my mind right now, about Woody Allen - I don't remember which of the news stories I read about him inspired it, and I don't remember when I drafted it, or whether I edited it with a strategy or not. I have information in my email about when I submitted it and when a publication asked for revisions, and I can tell you exactly why I've been putting off doing those revisions ( = they're too hard). But the beginnings are murkier, and that's the norm for me.

Sometimes I use this blog as a primary source for research on when I wrote things and how I worked on them. But in the last couple of years I have become unhelpfully vague, here, about the stuff I'm working on. Part of this is because my writing practice has changed, grown looser (lazier?), become more binge-y than bit-by-bit-y. I can't tell a serial story about any of it: the idea comes in one day and the essay whooshes out two days (or six months) later, in one big blurt, so there's nothing to say.

Another part is that Caitlin Moran thing when you stop talking to your friends about the guy. My writing process is much less interesting to me now than all the other stuff I've taken to writing about on this blog, and anyway it can't be that unique: I sit down and I write, or I stare at the page, or I read my own words and try to figure out how to replace them with better ones. Sometimes this takes place in longhand, and sometimes I type. Sometimes deadlines help me, but mostly they don't. I hit the same walls a lot: running out of enthusiasm for the idea I started with, feeling like I don't have enough time to do justice to an idea, finding I don't have enough load-bearing walls to build a room. If this isn't interesting to me, surely it isn't to you.

This blog still interests me, for the record. But I'm in the process of determining how to use it for anything other than a promotional tool. I was thinking of explaining a significant hour I spent on the road between I-10 and Mecca, California, but I might knead it into an essay instead. I wanted to talk about my experience at a writing workshop in Santa Fe, but I don't want to step on the toes of the people I met there. The more topics I come up with, the more I divert them away from this space, for one reason or another. It's a puzzle, but I'll solve it.


*After I announced this influence in my newsletter (are you subscribed to my newsletter?), a helpful person pointed out that Yeats originated the phrase "slouching towards Bethlehem," and Didion appropriated it. This is true. However, the appropriation is arguably more famous at this time than the origin, and there's more than a little Los Angeles in that.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Things that Are Happening

Earlier this week I wrote a scary post about a big change I'm initiating gradually over the next few months, a change that's directly related to privileging creativity in my life. Which is basically what this blog is about. But I chickened out on it at the last minute. There are good reasons why I should not put up that post, and I decided to acknowledge them instead of going forward and possibly ending up like this


. But there's so much stuff I want to write about in this space that I kind of have to start blogging after a three-month break so here's a post and I'm sorry it's not the more daring one.

So! Here we are!

1. I have made a zine, and it's called Aphorisms on Surrealism, and it's $3. Please Paypal me, masonklc at gmail dot com, if you'd like one. Include your mailing address and I will send it to you; if you don't include your mailing address I'll just keep your money.

I've never seen zines bound with safety pins, but it was what I had on hand.

In case you know a thing or two about surrealism, yes, the project of writing aphorisms related to surrealism is by its very nature contradictory and improper, and that is the point. You, sir, will enjoy my zine. Three dollars, please.

Another zine, even shorter and only a single dollar in cost, will be coming along shortly. It's called How to Be Cool. There's a longer one I'm thinking about making, but I want it to round up a rejection or two from actual markets before I try and print it myself.

2. I missed the opportunity to share this essay with you. It appeared in the Los Angeles Review in August. I am exceedingly proud of it. There'll probably be a whole post about it sometime, because it came to be in a series of events that are pretty instructive.

3. I am teaching a workshop about sentences on November 11. If you're in the Los Angeles area, please email me, either at the address above or at the one in the sidebar, and we'll talk about whether you would enjoy attending. It's $35 for three solid hours of conversation and guidance regarding sentences. That's a very low hourly rate. Take advantage of it while I'm still cheap. Someday I'll be famous and expensive and then you'll regret not taking a class from me when I was still charging less than $15 an hour for my time, won't you? Yes, you sure will.

4. You may have missed a couple of Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) interviews that dropped since the last time we were together. Here's one with Zoe Zolbrod, here's one with Jessica Piazza, and here's one with Kristi Coulter. Coming up soon are duncan b. barlow (a very, very nice dude and a fine writer who I thought was British for no reason I can determine) and Genevieve Kaplan (whose interview is different from literally all the others). Plus a couple of other writers who have expressed interest but haven't gotten back to me. As soon as I nag them into getting back to me, there will be more interviews.

Also, I reviewed Alice Anderson's new memoir, Some Bright Morning, I'll Fly Away, for Fiction Advocate.

5. I received two acceptances within a week of each other: one for a pure-fiction short story (the only one I've written in the past couple of years), and one for the Kathy Ireland story, which was a real treat to receive after a pile of rejections on that story. I'm really looking forward to sharing those pieces with everyone once they are published. I also received a painful rejection for the secret project and a colorful assortment of other rejections for various essays. And two rewrite requests: one that I haven't gotten back to, and one that hasn't gotten back to me.

I'm listing all this because people have started to ask me if I've been doing any writing lately, in a tone that makes me feel sort of guilty and idle, and I can say well, not really, but there's been a reasonable amount of activity in my writing life nonetheless.

6. The amount of reading in my life has been minimal of late, because I read a long book I strongly disliked in midsummer and it put me off reading, the way eating an entire pan of brownies will put you off brownies for at least a little while. (Probably.) I've got to roar back to it, though, because I have a special bookcase now for my not-yet-read books and it's completely full.

7. Last week it was my birthday. I am 36 years and seven days old. I believe I've officially passed the common age of rom-com heroines, which is honestly kind of a relief.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Better or Worse

Last week I watched the 1987 film Mannequin, with Andrew McCarthy and Kim Cattrall. For whatever reason, this movie was a big part of my early life. For a time, it was my most favorite movie, to the point where I drew pictures of the two main characters and put them in a locket I wore because I loved them sooooo much.

This is not easy for me to admit. But I was quite young, around seven.

Seeing Mannequin nearly 30 years later was a weird experience. I remembered the outline of the plot, and I remembered some aspects of the performances, but most of what I remembered was inflection, turn of phrase, sound and look. The way some lines of the screenplay were said has been hanging around in my neural matter for all this time; it was like hearing lullabies sung to me in my cradle. Oh, this line, yes. Right, that montage. I didn't know exactly what the actress was going to say, nor what it meant in the context of the film, but I knew precisely how she was going to say it. An alchemical kind of memorization.



Since last week I've had those lines bouncing around in my head. I can't recite the whole movie, but I could parrot a good 25% of the screenplay right now, if you wanted me to. The way people get songs in their heads, I get scenes in my head, from movies or shows I watched either at developmentally crucial moments or have watched repeatedly. Mannequin had been lost to me in that way until I saw it again, and part of me thinks it was a mistake to watch it as an adult, because it woke up all those brain cells that had been sleeping and/or allocated to more useful tasks. And now I can remember it. For better or worse, it's in my head again, imprinted like a fingernail in clay.

Perhaps it's for worse that I'm saying this about a disposable 80s comedy with questionable gender relations, impossible plot mechanics (he's the toast of Philadelphia for designing department store display windows?) and untenably over-the-top performances.* Yet there are worse movies I could have eaten up as a child. And the bright 80s colors and synthesizers, the simplicity of the plot, the positive ethical compass, the sheer harmlessness of the whole enterprise - these things make it a pretty good movie for kids, even if that wasn't the intent.

Watching the film again, though - I wanted to memorialize the weirdness of that experience. Because although it might've been fine for seven-year-old me, now I can see what a thoroughly dumb film it is - the padding, the flimsiness, the Born Sexy Yesterday problem. I cringed all the way through, even as bits of my brain flared and lit like distant fireworks.** Both happened at the same time: affection, communicated across time and space, along with deep, vermilion embarrassment.

Some years ago, when we still lived in Maryland, I talked my husband into taking a day trip with me to Norfolk, Virginia, where I lived during my elementary school years. I had an itch to see this place called the Hermitage, where I went a few times as a child, and which I remembered as a mysterious, enchanted glen of sun-dappled woods. Someone had long ago placed millstones among the trees, which had been grown over by grass and moss. I remembered old brick walls, restless quiet, the possibility that Narnia waited around the next bend. I couldn't bear my half-memories of the place any longer, so we drove there.

The Hermitage grounds are lovely, but smallish and well-kept, not wild and mysterious. The house (which was off-limits every time I went there, so I didn't care about it much) sits next to water - the Lafayette River - a detail I did not remember. The woods I had remembered made up a fairly small patch of ground, and the trees were not exactly sparse but were not thick enough to hide the house or the neighboring wetlands, to make you feel like you were at all distant from civilization.


My memory sparked and fired from time to time, but like returning to an elementary school, everything looked small. Minimal. Mundane. Certain aspects did not disappoint, like the millstones, but nothing about the bit of woods we walked in felt enchanted. Matt was kind and didn't say anything to the effect of "we drove seven hours round trip for this?", but I felt deflated.

What I'm trying to say about all this is how strange our brains are, that they can latch on to more or less random input early in life and never let go. That might mean that we should be a hell of a lot more careful about what we give kids early in life, what movies and shows they watch over and over, what places they go and fall in love with. Or it might not; there's an element of "who knows" attached to all this, because I know I saw movies and went places as a kid that I didn't retain as clearly, or at all. I don't think having Mannequin and the Hermitage in my brain has made me worse (or better) off in any particular way, nor do I think the selection of this movie, this place, says anything special or important about me, my taste, my parents' parenting, anything like that. One of the most brilliant set of parents I know, their four-year-old loves Trolls, the movie made from nothing more substantive than a line of plastic toys; I think it's because the movie has bright colors, not because his affection for the film indicates anything about his destiny. But I'll bet he's going to remember the turn and shape and sound of aspects of that film well into his adult life. For better or worse.

Mannequin, at least, was entertaining. Keep your expectations low if you elect to watch it; the leads have nice chemistry and Spader has to be seen to be believed, but that's about it. If you've never been to the Hermitage and you're near Hampton Roads, it might be a nice place to visit.

What I definitely don't recommend is trying to go back to where you've been, whatever that means to you. You can go home again, but you can't live memories the same way a second time. Even if you retain them with precision, like the actors reciting their lines permanently in my mind, like the millstones under my adult feet, they'll never be exactly the way they were.

---

*I mean, I don't know who was telling Spader to do what he did in this movie, but he behaved approximately as human as Ed Grimley.

**An unintentionally funny thing: the evil department store is named Illustra (which is an odd name for a department store, right?) and it's mostly pronounced by the actors like Olestra. I don't think Olestra existed then, so now it's pretty funny to hear them talking about margarine and meaning a department store.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Six (Truth and Consequences)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
Part of me can't even figure out how to write this, the final post in this series. I've talked and written so much about Lifespan and COW (which is what Lidia calls The Chronology of Water - she even says it aloud like the animal, like moo-cow - so that's what I'll call it too) that I don't know where to start writing about them again. Both books changed my life. Crucially. Undeniably. No-going-back-ly.

But then, every book on this list has changed my life. Easily half of all the books I've read have changed my life to some degree. Changing your life is not really that hard, or that unusual. Every pebble in the riverbed changes the current a little, alters where the cold water lies and where you have to swim a little harder.

If not these books, perhaps some other books. If not them, a song or an album, a play, a film. Something would have come along to make my life different than it was before. That's how this goes, this life thing, this art thing.

But since we're here -

I read this review of The Lifespan of a Fact and decided I had to get hold of it. At the time I was writing genre fiction almost exclusively; in 2012 I wrote most of a novel, Highbinder, that I still love very much but that is many miles away from what I'm doing now. Still, even then I was obsessed with truth, and with the distances between and among truth, memory, story, and fact.

Lifespan looks like it's going to be a lot of trouble to read, because the layout of each page is one central rectangle of black text surrounded on all sides by smaller, footnoteish text colored either red or black. But it goes quickly. You develop a rhythm for reading the text and its associated notes, in whatever order you elect. You go from page to page in awe of the ideological clash taking place, even though it escalates gradually, even though it involves unpleasant dick-swinging, even though it leaves off on a note that makes you stare at the wall in existential terror.

As always, click to embiggen, because as always, Blogger makes it
impossible to make pictures the size I want them to be

Last semester we read Lifespan in my creative nonfiction class, and I ended up recounting part of the conversation we had in an essay, "Bright White American Smile."
What a thrill to study The Lifespan of a Fact in a classroom. The book had changed my life. I couldn’t wait to hear what younger minds made of it.

The result astounded me: they didn’t care about the facts. They sided with art. What difference did it make if D’Agata got every little thing right? He was telling a story.

But it’s not the truth, I argued, nearly apoplectic. The truth is sacred. It’s necessary. It’s water in the desert of the real.

Eh, they answered.
There was a lot more to it, but, y'know, that's why I wrote the essay. The book revolves around big questions, and questions that may seem small but are actually huge: the importance of rhythm in prose, the general point of fact-checking, the actual meaning of "nonfiction," and whether writers bear a moral responsibility to their readers. I don't know the answers to any of these questions, but searching for the answers is a big part of why I have developed and sustained a writing practice for the past five years. I don't think genre fiction could have kept my interest as I failed and failed and failed at writing during that time. If Highbinder had attracted a publisher, then maybe it could have, and my life would be different. But it didn't, and instead I read The Lifespan of a Fact, and so I am where I am.

Another reason I am where I am is COW, which I read just a few months before Lifespan, which was how I remembered it but which I'm still surprised to confirm. (Sidebar: in a single summer I read Mary Gaitskill's Don't Cry, Jincy Willett's Jenny and the Jaws of Life, and Barry Hannah's Airships, which all display remarkable, unusual, fascinating story-making, and each of which is a master class in writing. Why they all came my way in just one summer I'll never know.)

Later, I sent copies of COW to four women I know. Three of them wrote me messages and emails that said WHAT IS HAPPENING I FEEL WEIRD MY LIFE IS CHANGING MY BODY EXISTS HALP. And I was like, I KNOW. COW is powerful. (The fourth woman didn't like it. Too much sex.) I've been giving it away to people ever since; I think I've bought at least twenty copies. I decided to keep a handful of them on my shelf, just in case.

What I wrote at the time:
Chronology is a book that has absolutely changed my life. In a week. I am waiting to write much about it until I read it again, which I hope to do next week. I want to read it every week. I want to write it on my skin, to chop it into dust and breathe it into my lungs. It feels like the only real book I've read since I was a little girl (aside from books that just broke my heart, like Feed); the word "book" seems inadequate to describe it. 
I never did write more about it, because I assimilated it so deeply that writing about it seemed unnecessary. And now, of course, I'm stuck writing about it, because of this series.

It's a book full of contradictions. For a memoir so subjectively about its author, it offers a remarkably objective, granular sense of the experience of life. It grapples with language as a limited set of parameters, but it applies language so flexibly that other writing feels stiff, toylike, minor. Most profoundly, it frees the writing of women from the methods and practices of men's writing. It's assembled the way a life is remembered, rather than the way a book is Supposed To Be Written; the grammar varies according to the mood the reader is meant to feel; the style ranges widely; metaphors roam like fenceless horses.

Still from the book trailer

COW affected me by virtue of its novelty, certainly. I had not read Cixous, so I didn't know there was another way to write than some version of the Harold Bloom way, nor did I know what could differentiate women's writing, trauma writing, body writing, from more traditional prose.

But the book also showed me that I am always going to be the center of my writing, and I get to choose what I do with that centrality. My mentor says - quoting someone, I think - that the most interesting thing about a piece of literature is the consciousness through which it is filtered. She's talking about voice, and her lesson is a little different from what COW demonstrates, but the underlying ideas are nearly identical. Even if I try to scrub out all traces of myself in order to write a story about a robot stealing organs to make himself human, I can't remove me. Not completely.

This seems obvious, because I write my ideas, using words inside my head, but how far I choose to lean in to myself as I write is the variable. And that little lean, from here to there, is an enormous possibility space. There's no way to divorce a writer completely from what she produces, I believe, but there's a big difference between every character in your novel having a little piece of you inside her and writing explicitly from, or of, the self. Jesse told me after reading my secret project - which is not biographical in any significant way - that he found it deeply personal, and I think that's because I wrote it out of my body, instead of allowing my body to be remote from the process. I could not have written it that way before COW came into my life.

What I've learned since I read COW is that the work is better, more intense, more interesting, when I embrace the me at the heart of each sentence. That may take the form of genuine memoir, or it may involve explaining the emotional history of my porcelain veneers during an essay about The Lifespan of a Fact and Singin' in the Rain.

It's not how the list turned out, but the better pair of books to talk about in tandem, if talking about the books that mattered to me, is Oblivion and COW. Those are my two favorite writers: Wallace and Yuknavitch. Between them, Wallace is the mind and Yuknavitch is the body. Wallace sometimes gets embodied, and Yuknavitch is a brilliant thinker, but they generally fall inside those lines for me.

Since discovering the place of each of these writers in my cosmology, the missing element that's been nagging at me is the heart. Who's the heart?

My secret desire, ambition, terror is that I'm the heart - that I'm the one who completes the trinity.

A romantic notion: the heart knows the truth. And, after all, the truth is what obsesses me.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Novel-Writing / Blue-Footed Boobyness

In setting up the Casablanca novel, writing the early chapters, I've heaved a lot of existential sighs. It feels so tedious, having to tie the rigging and erect the masts for my model ship. As the New Yorker brought to my attention, 
in an interview with the Guardian last August, [Rachel] Cusk said that she had recently come to a dead end with the modes of storytelling that she had relied on in her earlier novels. She had trouble reading and writing, and found fiction “fake and embarrassing.” The creation of plot and character, “making up John and Jane and having them do things together,” had come to seem “utterly ridiculous.”
That's a terrific article if you read the whole thing, and it expressed a feeling I'd started to have about writing short stories at the time I read it in 2015. Writing fiction had begun to seem even more farcical than reading fiction usually did. Inventing people and setting them off on journeys felt hollow. Like playing with paper dolls in scenarios unimportant and soon forgotten. It was part of why I began to sway toward nonfiction, metafiction, hybrid work. Not only am I not especially good at writing regular short stories, but I don't enjoy it. 

In the Casablanca novel, although I'm writing mainly about one character and her journey and her interior life, I have to put together other elements of character and plot in order to sustain that journey, as well as - critically - the reader's interest. Okay, so I've invented a teacher who's a member of the French Resistance, and a principal who colludes with the Nazis, and a wife who's left her husband over fascism, and little teenage friends who are uninterested in the war. But making them all hang together as a whole tapestry, making cause and effect happen in a dance of inevitable surprise - that is the stuff that, in my opinion, makes it a novel. And that stuff is annoying and difficult and not nearly as interesting in the course of its invention as I ever think it will be. 

Writing all the other stuff is the work, and writing about my main character is the fun. I wish I'd remembered that novel-writing works this way before I decided to undertake this one, but I didn't, and now I'm stuck.

I hoped I would have more to say about this situation, above - enough to make a decent-sized post - but I do not, alas. Except to say that I read the book that New Yorker article was about, Outline, and it was one of the dullest, least fulfilling books I've read in yonks. Since it was the first book of hers I've read, I don't know if I don't connect to Cusk, or if her transition away from fiction has made for an awkward book or two.

Anyway, that's not enough data for a full post, so here's a few bits and pieces.

--

I briefly expressed this here in May, so forgive me for repeating myself. Since I reviewed The Book of Joan - gratitude to Julie and Brian, always and always - I've been tentatively asking various publicists and presses for ARCs to review, because I like reviewing books and doing so might lift my profile some more. In reply, I keep hearing "sure, okay, what's your address?" and it's making me ask WHAT EVEN IS THIS FARCE WHEN AM I GOING TO GET MY LITTLE DUMB LIFE BACK PLEASE DON'T LET IT BE SOON.

(ARCs are advance reader copies, un-proofread versions of books that are printed a few months before the book is actually released to the public. They are sent out to book reviewers and to writers at some level of fame who are willing to say nice things about the book. They are sometimes called galleys.)

People who have been doing book reviews for a while might think it's silly for me to feel gratitude and awe at getting ARCs, because I've heard tell of the phase where ARCs take over your mailbox and become an annoyance. But as of now, I still feel excitement.

--

I had another No Really I'm So Done with Facebook day last week, and then the next day there was a Carolyn Hax column I simply had to talk about and I got into an interesting conversation on her wall and agh, I was dragged in again. Honk if you relate.

--

I'm applying for residencies and whatnot for next year, a process so very uninteresting that it's almost not worth the possible reward. It feels like a slow, weird, conceptual dance I'm doing. That is, it's not the energetic, buy-what-I'm-selling song-and-dance that a salesman has to do, because it's in print and it's related to art, not commerce. But it's still self-promotion and self-exposure. Like a super-crappy mating dance. Same steps over and over, full awkwardness on display, uncertainty flapping in the wind.


I'm also assembling essays for a collection to pitch. The hybrid film essays are not yet ready for a whole collection, so this one's different - odds and ends, really. Some of them come from this blog, some from elsewhere. It's a weird experience. Copying stuff from the blog into a Word doc, changing the font, reorienting aspects of the context - suddenly the words feel more official. Figuring out how it all goes together, and whether it does, is equally weird. It's me, I'm the consolidating factor. Is that enough?

All this is on deadline, which gives it a stress blanket I do not enjoy. At least it means the unpleasantness of these processes has an end point. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

You Did That

Last week, my diploma arrived. The one from CSUN. It looks like this.

I whited out my last name to preserve what little everyday-life privacy I have. The name I write under is no longer my legal name, and CSUN told me they could only put my legal name on the diploma. Which is a shame, because I write under my maiden name, and I wanted my writing degree to list that one. 

I posted it on Facebook, in what I hope is my final look-at-me-I'm-graduating post on Facebook. (Well, except for this one.) I said that I still didn't know how I felt about attaining this degree, and that there was a lot of baggage, but there's pride and the desire to show off in there - the one reasonable, the other ignoble.

People kept asking me this spring if I was excited, or if I felt good. "I don't know," I told them. Are you SO ready to be done? they asked. "I guess I could use a break, but I really like school," I answered. Are you going to miss it, then? "Yes, but I'm planning to stay involved next year," I said.

None of these conversations went well. I didn't know the answers they were looking for. I didn't know what kind of conversation I was meant to have with these kind people: were they asking a chitchat question, or were they truly asking how I felt? I felt weird, and that was pretty much the only sensation I was sure of, but I didn't think that answer was how the conversation was supposed to go.

When I finished my bachelor's degree and people asked me what my major was, I told them film studies and philosophy - interdisciplinary, not a double-major - and they almost always said "Wow, what are you going to do with THAT?" I took to replying "Live in a box, I think," because I found it an impossible question. And I sensed disdain at my impracticality (understandable, but still rude) in the question, so I made a joke that let them know I'd noticed.

After honors convocation, I put my medal on the coffee table and stared at it for a while. Matt told me he was proud of me, and that I deserved a medal, if, for no other reason, as a physical indicator of how hard I'd worked.

"You deserve that medal just as much as I do," I said.

"No," he laughed, in an oh-as-if way. "No, I don't. It was you. That's your hard work on the table. I didn't do anything."

"You supported me," I said, feebly. "You stood by me, and listened while I raved about theory. You studied with me! I wouldn't've memorized phonemes if not for you."

He leaned forward in his chair. "You did that," he said, gesturing to the medal, gazing steadily at me. "You did that. That was your work."

It was a very Good Will Hunting moment. I almost started crying.

Medal, distinction sash, honors rope, CSUN sash

Pride is hard for me. Because of the environment of my high school, I find arrogance the worst personality trait of all; I fear it, and guard against it, in myself. Multiple voices from the past and present, based on real people and events as well as made-up insecurities, whisper reasons why my MA is not a big deal, why I have no reason to be proud, why I should in fact hide away from the achievement represented by getting this diploma in the mail. Since the hubbub around graduation started ramping up - really since I started this whole thing in the first place, in 2013 - I've struggled not to listen to them.

It's just a Cal State. It's just an MA, not an MFA or a PhD. You'll never make anything of it. Why'd you get it if you didn't want to teach? What proof do you have that the time and expense did you any good? If you'd worked harder you would've won that award. If you'd slept less you could've done it faster, spent less money. Your husband resents you for the time and money you lost him on this stupid goose-chase. You'll never catch up to people with PhDs. You're not as smart as them. It's just an MA. It's just an MA. You have nothing to show for it. Who cares? 

Getting over that is hard. I could've written another twenty sentences of those mean whispers.

Though based in experience, and on real humans who have spoken to me, these statements are not based in fact. "Just a Cal State" gave me a more rigorous education than the fancy Seven Sisters college where I got my bachelor's degree. The proof I have is the acceptances I've gotten over the past year, the written work that's made it into the world. Matt has been proud and encouraging from day one. "Just an MA" has enriched my life beyond estimation since 2013.

It's still hard to believe fact over insecurity. I'm still haunted by what I didn't do. And there's deep, heavy family baggage related to this pursuit that I have carried with me all along.

It bubbled up in my mind some weeks ago that the reason I don't know what I feel about finishing the degree is the muddiness of the reasons why I decided to get the degree in the first place. My reasons were somewhat baggage-driven, but mostly entailed the vague notions of "writing better and knowing more." I do write better and I do know more, but the quantities remain unmeasurable. (Which is the whole deal with the humanities, really.) My classmates got the degree so they could teach, or so they could check off the box between BA and PhD, or so they could get more money at their jobs, or so they could return to the passions they held in their 20s and deferred through motherhood or career. Those are much more definite. My goals float and bob and skitter away when reached for.

But I am proud that I did this. I don't have a place to hang the degree, because Tom Servo hangs over my desk and the spot above the mantelpiece is taken, but for now I see it leaning against my desk every morning and every afternoon.

Like everything else I've done, or attained, it will find its place in my life. People will stop asking questions about it that I can't answer. I'll assimilate this time as "when I was in grad school", like the times of "when I was in paralegal school" and "when I worked as a copy editor" and "when I lived in London".

Eras come and go; experience is permanent. This was a good one.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Five (Humblings)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
A few years ago, my mentor, giving one of her lovely, lazy-Susan-like lectures, explained that when she first read Moby-Dick at a young age, she decided she would never write another word. She despaired of ever writing anything as good as Moby-Dick and thought it would be better not to write at all. Of course, she went back on this decision, and - having read her work - I can tell you that we're all richer for her change of heart.

Some time later, in another class, she re-told this story, and I told her that I'd read Moby-Dick since the last time I heard it, almost entirely because of this story: I didn't want to miss a book so extraordinary that it made her feel incapable of writing well.

"And what'd you think?" she said. "Pretty good, right?"

"Yeah, pretty good," I answered. We chuckled over the understatement.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Seven Things

1. Wanna see something interesting?

Behold, my statistics on Duotrope:

Click to embiggen because Blogger's photo UI is still very, very stupid

In the past year, 10 short stories have been rejected and 0 accepted (0%). Two essays have been rejected and two accepted (50%). I attribute some of this to the market for short fiction being fierce and oversaturated and in general, far harder to make headway in than the market for nonfiction - the general stats on Duotrope, not just mine, tell the tale. But also...maybe I should cut my losses on short fiction altogether. Maybe it's not where my future is.

2. I've been slogging away for a couple of weeks on a book proposal. Man, do I ever not want to do this ever again. There's no better way to lose excitement about your work than to explain it over and over in slightly different ways each time. Feedback about it has been positive, though.

3. On a single day last week, I had a publication, a rejection that amounted to a huge disappointment, and an acceptance that amounted to a big deal. And my friend won an award. And I spent all afternoon at work with high nerves waiting for a meeting, only to be told nah. And then my period started. It was a weird day.

Contemporary proof. 

4. Last week I paid for a writing retreat in Santa Fe for October. I have never been to Santa Fe, although it's been recommended to me by a variety of people with good taste. I'm going to drive, which I'm really, really looking forward to; it's 12-14 hours, and if I was younger, I'd power through it in one day, WOOOOOO, but I will turn 36 that very week, so I am old and crusty and I'm going to take two days instead. I'll stop overnight in Phoenix on the way there and in Flagstaff on the way back, so I'll see two different paths through Arizona. My apologies to Tucson friends, but it's extremely not on the way.

For some reason my heart is yearning toward a particular retreat in Spain in April of next year. I don't know the people leading it, and I have never met anyone less interested in international travel than myself, but since I read of this retreat I can't stop thinking about it.

5. Eating less is hard.

6. Over the weekend, I wrote a little and read a lot. Lately I've been reading 250-350 page books almost exclusively, instead of a mix of long books, shorter small-press books, poetry, etc. Mixing it up is nicer than what I've been doing, because even if it's short, finishing a book always feels like an accomplishment. Reading half or a third of a book in an afternoon just isn't the same. I seem to have run through a great many of the poetry books on my TBR list, so now I'm stuck with short stories if I want to read short books. (No offense to the writers of those books of short stories. They're just not my favorite thing to read.)

Also over the weekend, I saw this remarkable film, which gave me the same impatience I always have when watching documentaries but which hit me in all my sweet spots: film, human lifespans, historical loss, palimpsests. I adored it. I really needed it, too, because it's become my habit to play Montana solitaire on my phone when almost anything is on the television, and it's not a habit I like having picked up. Dawson City: Frozen Time is pretty slow, but I had no choice but to watch only it. Having to expend my full concentration on it reminded me how much more pleasurable it is to expend full concentration on something rather than part here and part there. The following evening's reading was interrupted far less often than usual by Facebook checks.

7. There is so much bad news in the world that I want to fall out of it altogether. Every day, recently, something has happened that's either tragic or epically disappointing. Is it my duty to be a good citizen and notice these things, or is it my duty to protect myself from nervous breakdowns by letting go of noticing? The latter has been my strategy for some years now, but the bad news encroaches, crushes, and I feel more lost than usual.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Next Up: Bricolage?

Right now, as I write this, you can read a written collage I assembled at the Collagist. I am thrilled about this publication, for so many reasons that I need a list:
  • I ever want to cast more light on Mega-City Redux 
  • My friend Julie wants everyone on earth to read Other Powers 
  • This is the first written collage piece I've ever made, and it found a home in a (terrific) magazine called the **Collagist**, too cool 
  • The Ride of the Valkyries is about female power, and it's commonly associated with male power, and that is dumb and annoying and I want to reverse it 
  • I managed to say something important and interesting about feminism in a way that looked new to me 
I assembled the piece without much method, except for trying to shift from source to source with a fairly regular rhythm, and stretching out with my feelings, as Obi-Wan exhorts me to do. I chose these three sources because they seemed to have something to do with each other in my head - no greater or lesser intention than that. I plucked out portions I'd marked as I was reading, but I had many more than are in the finished piece. I trimmed based on what felt right. 

My favorite part is "[blank sentence]." It's so very Magritte. 

Earlier this week, Entropy published my most recent interview in the Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) series, with the redoubtable Lynn K. Hall. I had fun putting this interview together, and I assuaged my guilt about not having read her book at the time I started the interview with gulping it nearly whole when I sent her my follow-up questions, and then confessing to my failure, and then salving the guilt with a positive Amazon review. 

I highly recommend her book, and not just for people who commonly read this kind of memoir. It's a tightly written piece of work, a model of structure and efficiency. Beyond the book's craft, Lynn's story is phenomenal and necessary.

Lately I've been brewing ideas without executing them, and submitting work all over, which is my favorite phase to be in. Brewing feels so necessary and correct, and submitting work reminds me that I have indeed written things, which makes me feel accomplished. Actual writing phases are filled with uncertainty and the feeling that I'm floating through life without really living it, which sucks. Brewing and leaning on finished work is nicer. Of course, I risk treading water too long in the red section of this handy diagram.



Now that school's out (for summer / for ever) (?) I'm reading a lot. But the pile never seems to get smaller. I've started a sub-pile beyond the "to be read" pile: the "READ THESE NOW YOU JERK" pile, composed of friends' books. It's also pretty tall.