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. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

I am tired of this

I have a vision of each shooting incident like a flame, a small deep whoosh like when the paper in the back ignites, before you can feel the heat or see anything; the soundless eating lip against the newspaper more blue than orange, blackening, hot but not dangerous until it reaches your fingers; spurts on this side and that side and in the middle and at the south and north and east and west until sparks fly from sea to shining sea and it all alights, combustion unstoppable then, even wet wood will catch and sizzle and dead matter will fly up the chimney and then nothing will remain, cinders, smoke, no living leaping flame, no spark, soot and ash waiting to be cleaned until spring comes and birds nest in the flue.

I have a vision of this place in flames.

McDonald's signs cracked and half-fallen. Starved Calvin Klein models graffitied and torn. Statues muscling each other out of city blocks, until their foundations decay and they topple.

Topple, Rome. Burn. All cities burn, eventually. I wrote that once.

Yesterday's heroes tomorrow's enemies today's talking heads. Flap flap flap flap flap. Birds nest in the flue.

Put your hands over your face before the camera snaps a picture. Open your mouth in a wail. Learn to do this before you are seventeen. Later, but not too much later, look for your open mouth on CNN. Look for it every two or three days. Look for it on routine anniversaries. Silver and gold. Carbon steel, the anniversary metal for these occasions. A common amalgam. Melted together and left to set in a mold, which is then shattered to create a death-object.

I have a vision.

It is kinder than the truth.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Notes from Here to the Ocean

If you have ever pulled the car over to set down an idea, you are a writer.

Blew a kiss to a jacaranda in bloom.

Perfectly tilled dirt. A machine has been here, farming.

The word arroyo untranslatable.

Hand to my own throat, fingers spread. The fragility there. Breakable breath.

"Table Song" : pious brother to your vices / You were shunned and burned your cradle

A decapitated palm tree looking like a violation. Unusual violence. Shaggy beneath its headlessness. The trimline ladder-high.

The shape of a woman with a latte, gazing.

I missed when it rolled over to 10,000 miles because of "Mary" and the scenery : the sugar rush / the constant hush / the pushing of the water gush

Precious water.

Driving, really driving, moving across the land at speed, as liminal: between waking and sleeping, between here and the ocean, the minutes after waking from a nap on the sofa, when the entire body glows with contentment.

Recognizing this feeling. Oh, it's love, I am in love. The voice murmuring to me over waves, dripping, that voice. Not that kind of love. Like poetry. Like music: the guitar rising in my heart, the piano rippling across my ribcage. I had forgotten falling in love could be nonsexual, nonromantic.

See myself as a streak of light blazing down the highway. Colors of the dawn.

Come around the last curve and there she is, spread out, stretched out, burning a thousand candles.

C'est vous, Los Angeles. Every love song is for you.

Shake my hair back, a happy animal. Take, take me home.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Four (The Span of Everything)

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
If you've looked at this list and been curious about why a biography of Helen Keller inspired me so, today's post is for you. This book doesn't really go with any of the others. I mean, of course it does, because a life lived in books is a tapestry wherein every last thread depends on all the others. But this book is a straight biography, carefully researched in fact and detail, which puts it alone on the list; the language of it had nothing to do with what it meant to me; and its inspiration and influence weren't about a young, developing mind (#s 1-5) or an early, developing writer (#s 7-9).

Everybody learns about Helen Keller at some point before high school, I think. She's a part of American mythology: a girl who was born with every reason to feel sorry for herself, but who persevered beyond the pale in order to connect with other people. I don't remember why I chose to read a full-length biography of her, because I never had any significant interest in her aside from the natural awe and curiosity anyone might feel when they first learn of her existence. But for whatever reason, I picked up Herrmann's book at the Bowie Public Library at some point in my mid-20s, and won from it a new perspective.

I've been trying to talk and write about this for a number of years. I drafted this post for weeks. I'm not sure I've got it down satisfactorily, but this represents my best effort.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

May Miscellany

As usual, once I write enough organized, one-topic posts I wind up with a bunch of smaller thoughts that need a place to go.

1. In finishing out the last semester of my graduate degree, I did two public readings and two semipublic readings. They were terrific. I love giving readings and I will miss the opportunity to do it. I guess I either need to join somebody's reading series or start a series of my own.

For the final GRS (Graduate Reading Series, which I've been co-running at CSUN all year), I read what I most wanted to, which meant I read a piece of the secret project, a poem (!) about hawks, and my manifesto. It meant a lot to me to get to read these things in front of an audience, particularly an audience that's known me for a long time but might not have heard/read this stuff of mine. I got positive responses.

Beyond my own experience, it was wonderful it was to hear my dearest Jesse read his poetry for the first time in well over a year. His work is so good, SO good, and I needed it.

For the first semipublic reading, I meant to read a piece of the revised final project I did for that class, and instead I ended up speaking sort of extemporaneously and reading a piece of this blog post, which had nothing to do with the class, and I don't really know how I ended up there but it made sense at the time. For the second semipublic reading, I read the start of the second chapter of the Casablanca novel I've started writing (did I mention that here? I'm writing a novel about Casablanca), and I think it went over fine.

The final reading was for 698D, my capstone/"thesis" class, and I was nervous for the first time in about six months. I'd been at a microphone easily a dozen times in the meantime, but this one, wow. My hands trembled. The reason was the material. I decided to read some of my hardest stories: the codex for why I will never live in New England again, the time I cried over a Banquet frozen dinner. I was afraid of being so vulnerable. Which is weird, because vulnerability doesn't usually scare me, but...I don't know. I was such a different person when I went through all that. Which explains itself, kind of; I wouldn't be who I am without crying over that Banquet dinner. Yet if this material wasn't interesting, or worth hearing, maybe that meant I was not an interesting or worthwhile person? [gestures with flappy hands] Whatever. I read the hard thing and I don't think it went as well as GRS but it's over and fine.

2. There's been some literary-world kerfuffle about this article, which says you HAVE TO HAVE TO write every day if you want to be a writer. No, you don't. I didn't even click on it when I started seeing it around last week, because no, you don't, and people who say that are locked into thinking there's One Right Way to do writing. Few things exist with One Right Way attached to them. I sat and stared at the wall and thought about this just now for several minutes, and drilled on down to things that are the same for everyone, like bodily functions, and even then I can't settle on the idea that yes, there's one right way to urinate and all the other ways are wrong. Human beings always have a choice.

But that is very far off the point, which is no, you don't have to write every day. I don't. I do, however, take writing seriously, which is the practice I think is truly important if you want to be a writer, and which practice I believe looks different for everybody. Consequently, in about two weeks I'll have another publication to tell you about. Take that, dude on Salon whose books I've never read.

3. I had to cut this out of my post about Girl and Incest:

In the suburb where I lived during high school, there was briefly a bookstore in the same plaza as our local music store/safe haven, Record & Tape Traders. I don't know what the deal was with this bookstore, whether it was an indie or an overstock seller like Crown, but I found there one of the most unusual books I've ever read: Exegesis, by Astro Teller (who, the internet tells me, now runs Google[x], which surprises me not at all). I bought it because the cover was nearly black, with an imprinted :) on it, and that looked interesting. I imagine the book would seem very quaint now, because it's about AI and takes the form of emails and instant messaging, all circa 1997, but at the time its form and subjects were totally new to me. It was one of those books that drops out of nowhere and back into nowhere. It's never come up anywhere else in my life, and in the middle of a high school curriculum it was exotic indeed.

4. Augh, I forgot to tell you about this interview with Gayle Brandeis! It was the most fun one yet. Two more interviews are on their way.

5. Somehow I have become a person who asks for, and receives, ARCs (advanced reader copies). I don't know how. It's a delicious mystery and it makes me feel very fancy indeed.

6. Related to this, I've become convinced that the best way to be a writer in the world is to lift other writers up. I've had a lot of good luck in the past two years, but I've also tried hard to spread the work of others out in the world: giving small-press books away to people I think would like them, sharing poetry and essays around, telling people about writers/friends I know that I think they should know. Every victory for every writer I know is a victory for me, too. I don't know which way the karma is flowing for me, but I don't really think that's the point of karma. 

I guess this is networking, in its truest sense. But it seems to be going well. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Feminist Argument in Favor of Reading Infinite Jest

Some weeks ago, I read this article, and I got into a conversation with my friend Marissa about it. Marissa is one of my favorite people for too many reasons to list here, but here are two relevant to this post: she is an exuberant feminist and a beautiful reader. These things combine to make her spurn books by men in a way I admire. She can correct this memory if I've screwed it up, but I think it happened that she spent a year reading books only by women, and then when she finished the year and started a book by a man, it reminded her of all the crappy qualities of male writers and the reasons why she did the project in the first place. She metaphorically (or literally?) tossed it at the wall and went back to solely women writers.

(A number of other writers have done this year-long project. The article I remembered best about it was this one on (cringe) XOJane, but you can also find work about it on Flavorwire, Medium, and elsewhere. Some of the articles, like this one on the Post, even include helpful lists of women's books, because Lord knows no one can independently find women writers, hidden as they are behind vacuum cleaners and under changing tables.)

Marissa and I had a Facebook conversation about this article* on DFW, joined by other women who've experienced the same phenomenon of Men Recommending DFW. It got sort of philosophical, running to the question of why people recommend things to other people in the first place. How to distinguish between recommending as condescension and recommending as genuine interest and exchange?

The main question I wanted to ask was why not having read something must be linked to insecurity. I'm not trying to accuse the writer, but what I mean is -
I wanted to become the right kind of person: savvy, culturally literate, respected by the metropolitan elite that might assume by default the cultural illiteracy of someone from Virginia. For a long time, I’d respond to men’s Wallace recommendations with “he’s on my list,” or “I’ve been meaning to — totally.” And for a long time, I meant it. 
Why not just say "No, I haven't" without assuring the asker that you intend to? It might be because you want to keep the conversation moving smoothly, which is completely reasonable. But it reads to me as "Oh, yes, I recognize that he's Important and I fully intend to comply with society's expectation that I read him."
This is how you become the right kind of person: if you’re not in a position of power, identify your oppressors — well-intentioned, oblivious, or otherwise — and love their art. This is why it’s hard to distinguish my reaction to Wallace from my reaction to patriarchy. This insistence that I read his work feels like yet another insistence that The Thing That’s Good Is The Thing Men Like. 
Of course, I know female DFW fans. But when women have talked to me about Wallace, their commentary is usually “he’s funny,” or “I liked A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.” It has never been “Go read Infinite Jest,” or “You haven’t read any of his work?” It should also be noted that, upon hearing about this essay, male Wallace fans have specifically listed women they know who like Wallace — as if this invalidates my disinterest somehow. 
So, okay. This is all fair and true and real. Coyle is right on the money when she talks about The Thing That's Good and the kind of person who generally tends to like/recommend DFW (white, male, pretentious, self-centered).** But I still don't understand why the answer isn't merely "No, I haven't read him." I mean, who cares? Why try to be the right kind of person? Why fall into resisting male insistence? No one wins that way. The resister looks passive-aggressive and the insister looks like a dick.

Moreover, why not reply with asking if the recommender has read Elena Ferrante? Or Zadie Smith? Or Clarice Lispector? Why is the response "Of course I'll correct this oversight" instead of "Hey, so there's literature in the world not written by men"? The latter might lead to an interesting conversation, or at least one where you get the measure of who's talking to you and why they're recommending DFW. Anyone who would say "You haven't read any of his work?" isn't particularly someone I want to talk to about books.

One of the main points of Coyle's article (as should be obvious from the quotes above) is the sense that gender divides contribute significantly to who recommends DFW.
The men in my life who love Wallace also love legions of stylistically similar male writers I’m not interested in (Pynchon, DeLillo, Barth). I began checking out of literary conversations with them altogether. Now, when getting into book discussions with a certain kind of man, I often say “I can’t read” as soon as possible. 
I genuinely love that answer. From now on, if someone says "You've never read any of his work?" about Philip Roth, I'll definitely say I can't read. But part of what I resist about Coyle's point of view is electing to shut down irritating DFW recommenders by...not reading his work. What I usually do with an annoyingly omnipresent writer is read his work, and then explain why I don't like him to people who ask. Knowledge is power, y'know, whether in the classroom or at a cocktail party. Being able to stand next to the most obnoxiously erudite person in the room and talk about DFW is, in my opinion, better than saying I can't read. If only slightly. 

As I wrote in that Facebook conversation: read Wallace and make up your own mind. Don't let DFW fanboys tell you what they think forever; tell them what you think.

Doing that requires you to read an awful lot,*** because the target for pretentious people is constantly shifting. But I think it's possible not to be forever saying "He's on my list," between a combination of reading a lot and not giving a damn about whether you've read this or that book. If you care about whether you've read it or not, read it. If you don't, don't. (I mean, why is this so hard that we write feminist essays about it?!) I won't let people talk down to me about books, because I've read a lot of them, and not having read a particular book probably means I've read a different one instead.

Plus, it turns out that a lot of people are faking their knowledge.**** The women in this Facebook conversation noted that most copies of Infinite Jest go unread by their purchasers; pretentious dudes don't often have the discipline to actually get through 1,000 pages of dense intellectual trickery. I, however, have read it. Which means I can keep up a conversation about DFW if you start one and I will know if you're pretending you've read it. Knowledge = power.

And look, I'm not saying Coyle should give in and read DFW like the patriarchy wants her to, but instead to choose reading him as the most powerful option. Don't let them teach you how to use a table saw, or (more accurately) talk to you about how useful the saw could be if only you could get your tiny woman-brain around the challenge of its operation. Read the manual and use it yourself.

Don't let them devalue your opinion, love. Read and speak some more.
Their ignorance shouldn't infect you.

Marissa pointed out that the way Men Recommending DFW see the person/woman they're recommending it to is as "an empty vessel waiting to be filled with male intellect". Ugh. Probably. So turn that around. Read more books than anyone in the room. Have an opinion. Don't let anyone make you feel small because you never got around to Jude the Obscure. Read Middlemarch instead and talk about Victorian realism vs. the waning influence of minimalism, and how since postmodernism we've strayed from the genuine novel form into a kind of extended short story, and how you can see this if you read Sophie's Choice against something like 11/22/63. Those ideas are free from me to you. Enjoy them.

The rest of this post is just extended footnotes, because of course it is.


*I'm annoyed that Coyle (or her editor) picked Brief Interviews with Hideous Men to read for the article, because I think it's the least intellectually interesting of his work I've read. He's so mean in it, so heartless, an empty center where the humanism of many of his other works goes. The title says it all: the book is a series of experiments in depravity, rather than in transcendence, which is how I see some of his other work. He's unkind in other stuff, too - the state fair essay, and the essay on porn - but I barely enjoyed Brief Interviews. I'd've picked "Mister Squishy" or just Oblivion to give you a real idea of him. But then I guess Brief Interviews is the most hostile and pretentious Wallace gets, which might be the Wallace fanboys like best. Yuck. 

**It bothers me so much that these are Wallace's strongest recommenders. It's like Richard Wagner: he'll never get the taint of Hitler off of him, even though his art has no meaningful connection with Nazism. 

It has become clear to me over time that everyone who loves Wallace loves him for completely different reasons. The people who are most vocal about loving him seem to love him for the worst reasons: because they think they're as smart as him (or they want to be); because they find his superiority towering instead of hollow, as he eventually did; and because he writes about the minefield of self-awareness, by which sensitive people both male and female, both wonderful and dreadful, are consumed. (The dreadful ones just talk about it a lot more.) I love him because of his excavation of that minefield, and because he likes words more than any writer I've ever read, and because he can write in approximately 6,874 modes, which is 6,873 more than most writers. Among other reasons. But the smart is much less interesting to me than the heart in his work. Fanboys seem to have it turned the other way. 

***I've written elsewhere about the benefits of omnivoracious reading: here, re: YA, and here, re: motivation for reading fancy books. I suspect I'll be writing about this topic in one way or another for the rest of my life. 

****I was COMPLETELY HORRIFIED by this Buzzfeed list and others like it. Why would you pretend to have read anything? It's just going to get you into trouble when people ask what you think! But it cuts both ways. People apparently lie about the books they've read all the time, so you've got the edge if you really do read them. (I've read 15 of those 22.) 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Medusa Laughs Again, Through Me, at Ms.

I guess May is my month. "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts", which I wrote, appears today at the Ms. Magazine blog.

This essay has been cooking in me for years. Influences include Hole

, Sadie Plant

, Stephen King, Simone de Beauvoir, Laura Mulvey, and most especially Hélène Cixous.

If you haven't read "The Laugh of the Medusa", do yourself a favor. My essay is the first ten minutes of the film of Fellowship of the Ring to Cixous's boxed set of LOtR plus The Silmarillion.

I've discussed the genesis of this essay before, but there are a few things I want to note about it now that it's out in the world.

First, it was being angry at someone that kicked me in the ass to write it after years of thinking about it. Generally, I don't think being angry is much of a reason to do anything, but this particular anger was good for me. And that itself was a useful lesson: the motivation to make art may not always be lofty or noble, but whatever makes you make art is a good reason to make art.

It happened like this. I tentatively introduced in class the idea of women living in their bodies differently than men, and an older woman, in her fifties or early sixties, disagreed with me. She said she didn't think women had any particular consciousness of living in their bodies that functioned differently from that of men. I looked at her and thought - perhaps unfairly - you are interpellated. You have been fooled by the patriarchy. There is something different about women, and you can't see what it is because you've lived too long in the shadow of men, through the maddening eye of the male gaze. How would I explain to this woman, I wondered, that a woman is more aware of her body than a man is aware of his?

When I sat down, I thought initially about all the different names and adjectives under which women operate, and that's where the first paragraph came from. The first paragraph was the last time I remember thinking consciously about what I'd put on the page. It poured out of me from there.

That's about as in-depth as I can get on the process of creating it, because that's the second thing I want to note. This essay did not come from painstaking word-by-word work; it came from white heat. I wrote it in a long gasp, except for two paragraphs which I was too distracted to add at the time and added later. The foundations of feminist theory it builds on are all in my head, though, and that theory took years to acquire. I read Dworkin and de Beauvoir and Mulvey in college, fifteen years ago; I read Freud and Kristeva and "Medusa" in the last two years. All that was a primordial soup from which the words came flaming out. But that is the way I write: the painstaking work takes place over a long period of time in which nothing is produced. The production period is extremely brief, but it calls on all the thinking-work. I've tried to explain this multiple times, because my work schedule looks breezy and weird to other writers, but this essay is possibly the most extreme example of it. Fifteen years of work condensed to 2,100 words I wrote in a few hours.

Third, my vision for this manifesto is to publish it with photographs in a standalone book. I have mental sketches for what I want the photographs to be (they involve my body, red paint, my husband's clothes, other things), and I have a photographer in mind, but she is in Oregon and I'm in L.A. and I have no idea how to arrange studio space, lighting equipment, and so on to make it happen. If you have fallen in love with this piece and are in a position to help me with any part of this project, by all means let me know.

Fourth, very importantly, I am not an essentialist. I don't believe that only biological women are women. I don't believe that organs or mascara or vocal pitch make or break the status of "woman". If you are a transgender/genderqueer/gender-fluid person and you think that, with this essay, I am somehow saying there's no room for you at the woman table, please, please, please get in touch with me (kcoldiron at gmail) and let's dialogue about it. My endeavor is to demonstrate how women, in my experience, live in their bodies, and to diagnose cultural conundrums relating to life in that body. I do not desire to offend or exclude.

(A non-binary friend of mine loved this piece, so I'm proceeding on the idea that I did okay...but I'd genuinely like to hear about it if not.)

Final thought: I never wanted "A Body Manifesto in Five Acts" to find a home anywhere but Ms. I am proud and honored beyond measure that Ms. agreed it belonged with them. But this publication, this honor, was kindled by my belief in my own power to speak and think and write. I would not hold such a belief without what Ms. has been doing since long before I was born. What goes around comes around, and around, and around.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Three (Young Womanhood)

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
I haven't returned to Blake Nelson's Girl since I read it, and I don't remember how I found it, unless it was a random bookstore purchase.* So, this overview comes almost completely from memory, which may be faulty.

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Weekend in Frazier Park, CA

No longer protected by distance or time, we live in the whole world at once, like postmodern gods, experiencing our own flesh and surroundings only disruptively.
- R.M. Berry
On the way to the cabin, I kept seeing ghosts of myself. An eighteen-wheeler that read "Aslan Logistics". A large homemade sign that read "Kat's Bakery". The general store had one small bottle of Crown Royal Black, my favorite, next to several larger bottles of regular Crown Royal. One small bottle just for me. In the waning afternoon as I sat on the porch, the biggest crow I've ever seen flew across the yard. It was the size of a small goose. I wondered if it was a raven, if that's just the expected size of ravens, and then I heard caw caw caw and went nope, that's a crow.

(I used to think crows were bad luck, but one day I decided to think of them as good luck. My life has been lucky ever since.)

The first night, I watched Manos: The Hands of Fate while I drank whiskey and thought about the work I had to do. My hands kept reaching for my phone. But my phone didn't work. No reception, no wifi. I'd been severed from my life. So I could only pay attention to Manos, instead of Manos + four other things.

I woke to birds doing what they do in the morning. I noticed that they sang with the gray part of dawn and then quit once the light started to rise. Sunrise and sunset were different on the middle of the mountains; the light fell at imperfect angles, and the actual circle of the sun didn't appear consistently with its beams. I ate breakfast and started work. I worked all morning, listening to my iPod (a Classic, now a dead breed and an antique by technology standards. But it's the only model that holds as much music as I need) and not bothering to change out of my pajamas.

At lunchtime I touched my phone, and then looked out the window. Rabbits blended with the chaparral but for their bright white tails. Steller's jays hopped everywhere. Small mammals I couldn't identify (size and appearance of squirrels, with short, sparse tails; way too big for chipmunks, too skinny for groundhogs) dug and quivered in the yard.

I worked for most of the afternoon. I finished 2,700 words: the second chapter of the Casablanca project/the final paper for my narrative writing class. I delved my fingers into my Singin' in the Rain essay and cat's-cradled it, burrowing deeper, finding the elements I'd dashed by on the first pass and hanging them out on the line. I added something over 1,000 words.

Dinner and some wine. The heater had been running on and off all day. The cabin had no central heating and didn't warm up much during the day, and it was genuinely cold, not just cold by California standards, at night. That is a fear I've faced and defeated, and here I was facing it again, during a few days' span when my creativity was the only thing at stake.

The following morning, Saturday, I took my time getting started. I'd accomplished the two main things I needed to. Writing on my thesis could certainly have kept me for another week, but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. I need to turn in 40-75 pages of material in mid-May, and all semester, though I've been fairly dutiful about work on the manuscript, I've had the sensation that what I turn in will be nothing like a finished product. In part because 40-75 pages is not a full-length memoir manuscript by anyone's standards, and in part because I knew it would take unencumbered, untethered, untimed work, for months or years, before I had a finished product I could stand for other people to read.

And, in all honesty, I have never felt good about this project. I didn't want to do it when Chris told me he saw the book in it, and I didn't want to do it when my adviser told me she thought it was a more worthwhile project than anything else I was working on. I didn't want to do it when I'd written a project proposal, when Jesse sketched the line of music I needed to preface it, when I found epigraphs, when I got feedback on the stuff I brought in to my small group, when my adviser told me I was doing great but needed to dig even deeper, when I nailed down present-day experiences to integrate with the old ones, when I uncovered memories I'd forgotten, when I constructed a skeleton to work from, when I found a theme to anchor, when I read Heroines and understood what was missing. No amount of progress made me want to do it.

Departing from this chronological narrative of my trip to Frazier Park, I didn't want to do it when I finished the draft on Saturday (May 6), when I revised it on Sunday, when I printed it out on Sunday afternoon, when I considered how to bind it and hand it in today. I still won't want to do it when I read from it on Friday, May 12. I don't feel ready to write it, even though I've written it. I don't feel old enough. I don't know when it will see daylight as a finished project. I need to reread Bachelard and come to terms with what I've already put on the page, what remains to go on it. I need to decide whether I find myself boring, whether I want to see this book in print, what this is all for. Never have I known such uncertainty. It's good work, I know, good writing, but it feels wrong, in instinctual ways I can't defend or explain.

I drove fifteen minutes down the road, to where I had cell service, and called Matt. "I think I'm going to come home today instead of tomorrow," I said.

"Is everything all right?" he said.

"Of course," I said. "I'm very happy. I'm just finished, or almost finished, and I miss you. I see no need to stay."

"All right, then," he said. "Yay."

I refreshed my inbox. I had 17 new emails. I opened Facebook. I had 26 notifications. I put down the phone and looked up at the mountains, at the falling dust spun up by my tires, at the pines around me.

On the way back, I drove by the Jim Whitener Tree, one of the biggest ponderosa pines in California. It has been growing since before the printing press. The road was too narrow for me to stop and take a picture with my phone. I fixed the look of it in my mind: branches themselves as large as trees, a trunk extending far below the elevated route I drove on, roots so deep, I imagined, they could dig straight through the earth's mantle to its warm core.

Back in the cabin I spent, no kidding, 15 minutes on my feminist manifesto. I wrote two paragraphs, and it was finished. That's work I've been waiting to do since November. It's true that I needed to be in the right frame of mind, but I was still disgusted with myself that it took so long. The DVD player, paused on a Rifftrax short, didn't even have time to go to its screen saver between when I started the two paragraphs and when I finished them.

I went downstairs to sit on the porch and brought my notebook. Suddenly, words arrived. I wrote about the Steller's jays, and about the men working on the house next door, and about the cold I lived through in the winter of 2005. I don't know if I'm finished writing about it - this is the nth time I've done so, I've lost track - but what I wrote felt definitive. As if it was the codex entry. I wrote about the day I took my shirt off in the winter at Mount Holyoke, an incident I still don't understand. I wrote about what happened when I went to the opera in November, just after the election.

Birds. Small mammals. Sunlight.

I went inside, ate lunch, typed what I'd written. I started packing my things, which I'd strewn in disarray all over the bedroom. I gathered up the trash and washed the dishes.

I went back outside to the porch, and while I sat there, thinking, listening to the wind in the green leaves, I heard what sounded like either a small child's shout or some kind of bird's cry. As the sound got closer, I determined it was definitely a bird, although I couldn't imagine what kind. Then a man walked past the cabin with not one but two enormous white cockatoos on his shoulders. He talked in a conversational way - to the birds, I learned shortly.

The man saw me and said hello, and I walked up to the street. I wore pajama pants and flip-flops and a Star Wars t-shirt and you could have fried clams in my hair. He didn't care. He greeted me and introduced me to the more friendly of his two cockatoos, who stepped onto my arm, walked up and over my shoulders and down my other arm, and then walked back again. His feet gripped but did not pinch. His beak and tongue were both black, worn, used; only a tinge of yellow colored his white feathers.

He, the bird, was thirty years old.

After a very pleasant conversation, after the man (Greg) and his birds had headed back toward home, I returned to the porch and sat down. I looked around the yard, my head completely empty of reactive thoughts. "That sure did happen," was the closest I could come. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before.

I decided to leave. Any other possible occurrence would have been a disappointment after meeting Greg.

On the way home, I looked at the mountains. I took the same way home as I took out, but I never once checked my phone, so it all looked completely different. The wild poppies like spilled paint on a hilltop; the clover tinging the yellow grass purple. The sky, and the whipped clouds across it. A hitchhiker and a handmade cast-iron ranch gate. Two trees, one bleached and one blackened, fallen and entwined in a clearing. The leaping engine of a Camaro. An overloaded Dodge Caravan with peeling paint.

I saw the world, is what I'm trying to convey. I saw the world. I didn't see it through a screen, like a concertgoer more interested in recording the show than being present at it. I saw it at its normal pace, not scrolling by with the speed of my finger. I saw it with its own colors, not an Instagram filter. I saw the goddamn world, and nothing about it looked old or small to me. I fell back in love with it. My heart rose with the San Gabriels and fell with the sun.

And I fell out of love with screens, temporarily at least. I realized I'd been allowing the world to shrink to the size of my phone screen, and I'd been seeing everything through that little rectangle. I had missed the real thing for the sake of the simulacrum. Yes, there can be more human connection through the little rectangles than out there in the real thing, I'd be the first to agree with that. But I'd lost track of what I love about the world - its indifference to us, its thereness - in favor of something that would react to me, conform to my needs, be forever novel and new.

I got done almost everything I needed to get done to finish my M.A. that weekend, but I also picked up perspective I desperately needed. My attention had become a baby feeding on pixels, and I needed to grow up again. I owe that to a few days in a cabin, to Greg, to my own words, and to the wind in the pines.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

News & -Letter

Holy moly there's so much to share with you. I went for a writing weekend and picked up a great little shift in perspective. I finished my feminist manifesto after five months of not finishing it. I am three weeks away from completing my master's degree (AND NO I'M NOT PANICKING OR ANYTHING).

But, far more importantly, I reviewed Lidia Yuknavitch's new novel, The Book of Joan, for the Rumpus.

"Joan does not participate in the binary. She does not play the patriarch's game."

I truly do not know how this happened, except that it did. I am honored and astonished.

Also! My interview series at Entropy continues. The most recent interviewee was Teow Lim Goh, and the interview ranged into deep stuff. I've got a few more terrific thinkers lined up to interview, so stay tuned.

And finally, I've started an email newsletter, Fictator's Digest. The idea of it is that I'll email you every so often (every couple of weeks? maybe?) to let you know about publications, what's going on in my world as a writer/reader, if I'm doing events or reading anything interesting. You can subscribe to it here. (It's a free MailChimp account, so if you see ads or PRESENTED BY MAILCHIMP!!!!! all over the emails, my apologies.) I'll send out the first issue tomorrow, so roll up, roll up, roll up!

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Part Two (Adolescence)

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. Anais 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
Sometime during middle school, an elderly lady neighbor in our apartment complex delivered to me a brown paper shopping bag filled with books. I think she said (perhaps I heard this secondhand) she thought some of them were a little too young for me, and some of them were a little too old, so hopefully the result would be just right. I wish I could remember all the books in that paper bag, but one of them was The Cricket in Times Square, an utterly charming book which now feels like a relic from another century (which, I guess, it is). Another was The Hiding Place, which I still feel guilty about not reading. A third was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3, a mass market paperback with a forest green cover and solemn white lettering belying what lay within.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bloody Noses

Yesterday, two news stories of interest to liberal audiences broke: a shooting at a San Bernardino elementary school in which two adults and one child were killed, and an incident in which a passenger was dragged forcibly off a United flight after it was oversold. My Facebook feed, which leans very far to the left, offered a ton of commentary on the United flight incident and very little about the shooting.

My husband put it thus: "It's another school shooting."

The United thing is slightly more unprecedented. Though it's part of the larger pattern of the last few years: the contempt and corruption and absurdity in institutions has torn through the last polite veil and it's on the surface now. Nepotism is plain instead of hidden. Swastikas are being spray-painted on churches. Profit comes before people, in Detroit and North Dakota and on the internet. It's always been here, roiling and charred; now it's visible.

I am not anti-gun, but I am not pro-gun. My father kept a shotgun under the bed, which my mother knew how to use. We believed in Constitutional rights in my family, but it doesn't follow that my family thought willy-nilly gun ownership was a good idea. It's kind of funny, because the two issues are at opposite ends of the political spectrum in this nation, but in my view, abortions and gun ownership should both be safe, legal, and rare.

It dawned on me a couple of years ago that plane flights, in a country as large as America, are not a luxury but a necessity. If you need to get home for a funeral, you don't have another choice but to fly. It's another way that the European model of planning a society doesn't fit America: the Eurail is reliable and useful because Europe is small. Copenhagen runs on bicycles because it's small. America can't do it the way they do it over there because our land mass is simply too big, and infrastructure planning for a place as large as America presents challenges that the Eurail doesn't face. (This doesn't excuse Amtrak for its suckiness, but it gives some sense to why lawmakers won't pour money into a rail infrastructure here. The distances are impractical.)

My opinion on gun control approaches apathy. Shootings keep happening, and we ride the roller-coaster of public outrage, and nothing changes. Why should I state and defend my position when lobbying outguns me every time?

If plane flights are a necessity rather than a luxury, why are they so unaffordable for the average person? Why do they run so unsatisfactorily, such that jokes about the unpleasant aspects of flying were already unfunny a generation ago? Why do they have to teeter between regulation (FAA) and deregulation (stockholders)?

Matt said to me once that handguns were designed for no purpose other than to kill human beings. This altered the way I view guns altogether. I see no problem with responsible gun ownership, but unless you're a collector (like some people collect decorative plates - and because of how I feel about cars, I fully understand a 100% unmurdery attraction toward guns, and whatever, you do you, but you probably have a gun safe), why on earth would you want a handgun unless you think you might kill a human being someday?

Why would you want to own a machine gun if you are not a soldier?

Why is overbooking flights okay?

"Because it's my right" is a good enough reason. I'm perfectly okay with that. Very little is more ingrained in the American perspective than my rights. But freedom and danger dance, inseparably, eternally, a tango toward the end of the world. Conscious decisions about which element to prioritize are necessary. You can't just assume you're either free or safe; you need to work it out for yourself, how much of each you want. And there's a point where I think the safety of others lands at a higher priority than the freedom of a few. That point keeps poking our nation in the temple again and again, cold and sharp, twenty children, fifty college students, a dozen moviegoers.

The opposing view on the United thing is that he should have just complied. Sure, I guess. If you think compliance will make people treat you fairly. If you think compliance is a virtue. If you think that overbooking flights is the customer's problem, not the airline's.

After Sandy Hook, I realized that the gun laws in this nation will not change. Ever. If the murder of twenty elementary school children spurs no restrictive action related to guns, nothing ever will.

As long as airlines are running a public utility for profit, shit like this is going to go down. They'll squeeze us into ever smaller sardine tins and charge us $400 for it and nothing will change. As long as we keep paying for what we have to have, and no one in a position to be heard says hey, this isn't right, and it matters to you as well as to me, we'll keep being dragged out of seats we paid for. We'll keep being given bloody noses and told to comply. For profit. For stockholders.

Guns don't cause these deaths. Illness does. If we can't fix illness - and we can't - there must be a way to limit what illness can wreak on the innocent.

The frenzy of being American contributes to it. Being male in America at a weird time, when the comfortable supremacy of men erodes daily, contributes to it. Powerlessness - like the kind that leads you to close your mouth instead of joining a union, like the kind that leads people to accept the phenomenon of overbooked flights so they can get where they need to go - contributes to it. The availability of guns, and the press coverage of prior shootings and the availability of guns to those prior shooters and the press coverage of the availability of guns to the shooters before that and the peaky emotional outpouring of rage and support after each one, these all contribute to it.

To keep the gears moving, to keep the bottom line in the black, to sell subscriptions, to generate clicks, so we can buy things and stone ourselves with television and tell each other how much better the advertisement was than the football game.

Don't you want to be famous?

Don't you want to matter?

Don't you want to get home?