Friday, February 24, 2017

Ten Books that Mattered: Prologue

In 2014, I got tagged in a "ten books that mattered to you" meme. I spent a while putting this list together, and have continued referencing and revisiting it ever since. Although there are many runners-up (Absalom, Absalom!, The Open Curtain, Inside Scientology), and although I've read some necessary-to-my-life-and-brain books since 2014 (The Argonauts, I am not Jackson Pollock, Moby-Dick), these still stand as the ten most important, most impactful books I've read.
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
These are all by white people, sadly. Five are by men and five are by women. Six are fiction and four are not. Six are by Americans, three are by UK writers (two British, one Irish), and I could not find out much of anything about Dorothy Herrmann, unless she's Bernard Herrmann's daughter as well as the author of the Keller book, in which case she too is American.

I thought I might, for the next several weeks, write intermittent posts about why these books matter so much to me. I don't know if I'll go one by one or not, because some of these books were important for clear-cut reasons that don't require much analysis. Maybe I'll lump a couple together.

Oh, and there's one that towers over all the rest: Hamlet. But it's not a book, it's a play, and I think of it as a kind of river flowing under my reading constantly. And its importance is both more ordinary and more subjective than the rest of these. Hamlet matters to me because of 1) its music and 2) what it demonstrated to me about making art. Those aren't reasons for me to recommend it; those are reasons 1) to love it and 2) to teach it.

I could teach some of these ten, but others would be hard. The same poem read aloud by 20 people is going to sound terrible in some percentage of those voices, and that average applied to some of these books would wound me. Hamlet, though, can take whatever you throw at it, and it will keep swinging, as it has for 400 years.

Anyway, look for these posts coming up if you like it when I talk about books. That's a big if, I realize.

Monday, February 20, 2017

From Me to You: A Little About Networking

Last week, as I prepared the exegesis post for "The Girl on the Bike", I wrote this:
I must disclose that I have a dear friend who's a semi-dormant editor at the Rumpus, and I ran "The Girl on the Bike" by her before I sent it in. I am certain that I got an acceptance because of the piece's quality, not because I got my friend to push something into publication as a favor. But the nature of the writing world, like most professional worlds, is that the more people you know, the more help you can get in order to succeed. I have a lot to say about this, as it pertains both to this piece in particular and to publishing in general, but I am lucky in who I know and I'm well aware of it and you can be mad at me if you want. I got lucky by paying for opportunities for myself, but I also got lucky by showing up, for free, for years, in all kinds of circumstances. I'm going on and on now but I will write a separate post about this someday.
I wrote this as a footnote, and then I took it out. I didn't want to distract from the issue at hand, which was talking about "Girl", and by the time I was typing the last sentence I realized that I had a lot more to say about the subject than I could put in a footnote.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017


I recently made long-distance friends with a fascinating writer of poetry and prose. After I rando-emailed her, she Googled me, sensibly, and found my blog, and read my From Me to You series. She asked in her next email if she could share the series with her students, because she found it helpful and thought they would too. I tried not to use too many exclamation points in my reply, but I was flattered and pleased that I'd been of help. Others have told me they've referred students to the series, as well. This got me wondering whether I should collect the series and print it, or put it in an ebook. Still considering. What do you think?

In the meantime, I've written another installment, which I'll put up next week. It's not about submitting work, as the first five were, but it definitely circulates around the issue of publishing.


This week, on deadline, I wrote a thing. I'm not satisfied with it, but off it goes to workshop anyway. (see "deadline".) It's definitely the beginning of something bigger rather than a story that stands on its own, and I'm looking forward to digging deeper into it later. Through this whatever-it-becomes, I will finally wreak my revenge on Casablanca for its mediocrity.

Yeah, I said it. Argue against me. Unemotionally.


Reading at present:

Anne Enright, The Gathering. The audiobook is driving me totally crazy so I think I'm going to pick up the paper book sometime this summer instead. The woman reading it is so slow that I lose track of what the last sentence said by the time we're in the middle of the next sentence, and the library app doesn't have the ability to change speed like iBooks does. Fully four seconds elapse between every sentence, which makes me want to scream. I really like the writing, though.

Wendy C. Ortiz, Bruja. Funny and moving and interesting and beautifully detailed. If you are a person who gets bored by other people's dreams, you won't like it. But I'm not, so I do.

Kate Zambreno, Heroines. So good I wish I could take it more slowly than I am. I did not like her novel Green Girl (I believe I'm the only one) (sorry), but I deeply love this.

The Cupboard Pamphlet. I picked up a subscription to the Cupboard at AWP last year, mostly because their tote bags were terrific, and man, I'm glad I did. I read duncan b. barlow's "Of Flesh and Fur" a couple of weeks ago and raved about it for two days, and then I read John Paul Stadler's "Prehistoric", and admired it although it was not my kind of thing. The Cupboard publishes tiny, beautifully designed little booklets, and I have not yet read one that wasn't excellent. Check it out.


This weekend I am going to separate literary events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I guess that's my life now.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Me on the Rumpus!

Yesterday, a wonderful thing happened: a piece of mine, "The Girl on the Bike", appeared on the Rumpus.

I have so much to say about this piece and its appearance. For starters, I've been wanting to place work at the Rumpus for six or seven years now. Like a lot of people, I found the site during Cheryl Strayed's run as Dear Sugar, but I soon discovered that the Rumpus published innovative, intelligent, deeply affecting work, and I badly wanted to be on the roll call with that work. I submitted a couple of times with no luck. Then I got smart about finding the right fit for my work vs. begging to be let in the door, and I waited to write something that would be right for the site. Nothing was. For years.

One morning in the fall of 2015, I was driving to work when I saw the dog and the bike exactly as they feature in the piece. Something about the incident stuck with me, shouted at me, would not leave me alone. It took a year and my friend Lucas to figure out what it was.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Sick It Up

Last night was a bad one.

I woke up around midnight with a severe pain in my midsection, a round tortilla of suffering right where my ribs flare open. It felt like heartburn, but it steadily increased until it was the second worst pain I have ever felt. I couldn't but wake up my husband, and soon I was actually writhing in pain on our bed.

About a month ago, an uncomplicated stab of pain right at the bottom tip of my left scapula began interfering with my days. It would begin midday and get steadily worse until I could no longer concentrate by the time I left work. The only thing that helped it was lying down; being upright invariably made it worse, no matter if I was sitting or standing. After three days, I went to the doctor, and she told me that bad habits had pulled my musculature out of alignment and I needed physical therapy.

Matt frantically searched the internet for what could be wrong with me. Panting with anxiety, he brought me a glass of water with baking soda mixed in and told me to drink it all. I did. By then I was hunched over the toilet, moaning, occasionally banging my head against the porcelain lid to distract from the pain. It had occurred to me that throwing up might fix whatever this was; sick it up was what I kept thinking, sick it up. As if I'd swallowed a wasp, and needed to pull its pincer out. But I didn't feel especially nauseated. Which meant that any throwing up had to be induced.

I started going to physical therapy a few weeks ago. At first it made me better. The pain lessened. I kept icing my shoulder and taking my industrial-strength Aleve dosage. But then, at my third appointment, my regular therapist wasn't available and I had a different one. For whatever reason, his massage and manipulation of my spine brought me right back to where I was. (I'll be writing about this PT session; it felt violative and frightening, even though I'm positive the therapist did not mean it to be so.) Since then I have slid forward and backward and sideways, as if on wheels in a bowl. The pain lessens and worsens, the muscles all around my scapula get looser and weirder and stronger and tighter. That contradicts itself, but the whole joint and its girdle of flesh seem to be changing.

The pain did not get better. So I stuck my finger down my throat and I sicked it up.

One day, at PT, I was doing the exercises the assistants told me to do, and the pain in my scapula gave way to a different pain. I tried to describe it to the therapist later, as she pinched and pressed on my arm, telling her it was underneath the regular one. On a deeper level. Oooohh, it went. If I could press down directly on the place of the pain, black acid would squirt out of it. I'd run water into the place until the squeezings went gray, and then clear. She did not understand. Below? she asked. Like here? No, I said. Never mind.

Bulimics baffle me, a little. Throwing up is so unpleasant that I don't know why you'd make yourself do it so often when, for example, you could just choose not to eat. And it always takes me so long to recover after I throw up: the smell, the inflamed throat, the sense that my face is allergic to itself. I suppose, like all things, you get used to it. Or the quality of "does not enjoy throwing up" is on a spectrum, and some people tolerate it better than others.

I thought of layering like nail polish, like puff pastry. Like a personality: beneath my veneer of coworker-friendly is a thin laminate slat of civilization; beneath that is drywall of morality; beneath that is a load-bearing two-by-four of be kind. Too much metaphor and abstraction, but it's in service of describing the pain in my shoulder, which I do not understand, and which feels more mystical than physical. Underneath the showy pain that sent me to the doctor perhaps lies a disfigurement of the whole system, one I picked up somewhere in the passage from 2010 to now, and only by breaking down the cell walls one by one, session by session, do I uncover the first layer of real pain, which has remained quiet until now.

Sick it up. Sick it up.

It didn't surprise me that the shoulder pain was on my left side. There's a logical explanation for this: I am right-handed, so all the muscle strength is on the right side, so the left is weak enough that the muscles atrophy and deform just by trying to do ordinary life tasks like sitting upright. But the explanation underneath that one: I've always thought of my left side as my creative side. I tattooed myself first on that side, first and most meaningfully. Tom Servo is my right-arm man, but the lamppost of Narnia shines on my left shoulder. When I injured myself in yoga, it was on my left, because yoga was taking up creative space I should have used to write. When an idea is blocked or is blocking me, my left wrist (broken in seventh grade) aches. Now, here I am, facing the most generative season of my writing life, scared of and excited about what has to come out of me before May 20th, and I am arm-bicycling in place on the machine every Tuesday and Friday. Trying to locate the pain underneath. Trying, failing, to press it out without bruising my skin.

I vomited over and over, coughing out dessert and then dinner and then afternoon snack and then, although this seems impossible, the morning's smoothie. Relief, immediately - not total, but significant. I rinsed and waited, and the tortilla of suffering faded and dwindled to nearly nothing. I drank more baking soda and more Mylanta. Matt rubbed my back and sat with me in the dark, our heads touching. I'm sorry, I said to him. I'm sorry I worried you so badly. No, he said. I'm glad you're all right. I think I'm all right, I said.

My shoulder ached.

I laid back on a little platform of pillows so the acid wouldn't return, and I watched a bad movie until I fell asleep. Matt's even breathing comforted me. The next morning, I hurt a little, between my ribs and under my shoulder. As if I'd eaten too much marinara, and hadn't been careful on the weight machine.