Wednesday, September 19, 2018

My Week in Backstory

Hi, here's a post that's backstory on the things that went live this week. It's helping me procrastinate on two essays I'm scared to write. Yay! 

Queen Mob's Teahouse published an essay I assembled from the work of five different writers: me, Lucas Mann, David Shields, David Foster Wallace, and Kate Durbin. This piece started out as a book review of Mann's book, Captive Audience, a memoir on reality TV, but I got really, really carried away. I took angry notes in the margins of his book and when I started typing quotes from him into the Word doc I had set up for the review, I couldn't stop. Somewhere in there I realized I needed help if I was going to critique the book as thoroughly as I wanted to. So it became a collage. Shields, from whose 1996 book I took some of my material, also blurbed Mann's book positively. 

Although the book did make me angry, it also baffled me - so far was it from the values I live within that I sometimes had to stop and squint to make sense of what Mann had written. If he was putting on a more-filtered-than-usual writer's persona for the book, rather than telling the unvarnished truth, the whole thing would make more sense - but it didn't read that way to me. It read as honest, if bizarre. 

I don't feel perfectly good about taking aim at a fellow writer this way, but the book felt that irresponsible to me, was that infuriating. I still don't understand how an examined, educated life can reasonably include reality TV, which exploits and exposes and never enlightens, and I don't understand how Mann can reasonably write what strives to be a memoir of an examined life and not acknowledge the other side of what he's endorsing. 

Also this week, the Rumpus published an interview I conducted with Elissa Washuta in which I talked about some things I rarely talk about - why I never cry, for example - and some things I talk about constantly - women's glossies, for example. I emailed Washuta initially because I've been wanting to have a conversation with her since I read My Body Is a Book of Rules, which I didn't fully understand but which I knew was important. She mentioned on Twitter some months ago that she was looking for promotion for Starvation Mode when it came out in paperback. 

When I reached out to her, I had no idea where I was going to send the resulting interview. Once we were both working on the interview, I pitched a few places (pies in the sky, mostly), but they either ignored me or turned me down. Time grew short, so I reached out to the Rumpus, with whom I have kind of a flexible, friendly relationship. I didn't know that Elissa had previously been on staff at the Rumpus, so I wasn't exactly reaching new audiences with her words by placing it there, which makes me feel bad, that I couldn't put it someplace that would help her more (and stupid for not researching this). I cherish the Rumpus and what it does, of course - I owe a great deal of my current reputation and workload to what it and its editors have given me, and the chances they've taken on me, and I will never stop pointing that out - but it would have brought me (and Elissa too, I think) a new line on the CV to appear in BOMB instead. 

Anyway. All possible credit to Elissa and Monet P. Thomas, the new Rumpus interviews editor, for helping this interview to be something special. Which I think it is. 

Also also this week, Submittable put one of my reviews in its newsletter. I had no idea this would happen until I opened the newsletter, and I was shocked to find my own words there. 

I read this newsletter closely every week, and it gives me all kinds of great leads and information, so I am honored and very pleased. Here's the review they're referring to, of Night Moves, by Jessica Hopper. I loved the book, even if it put the song of the same name into my head intermittently for months. University of Texas Press is doing remarkable work, very little like the average scholarship-oriented university press, and I recommend keeping an eye on them as you would a regular indie press. 

In other news - and I'm kind of burying the lede, if you live in LA - I'm reading this Saturday at the Poetic Research Bureau, a terrific little place in Chinatown, with two artists who are much fancier than I am. Here's the Facebook event if you want to RSVP. I am genuinely thrilled and I hope to see you there. I'll bring chapbooks. I owe this good fortune to Kate Durbin and to this t-shirt made of V.C. Andrews book covers. No foolin'. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Constant Everything

WOW THERE IS SO MUCH NEWS but it's not time to tell you it all yet. I've been out of the office on and off for two weeks, traveling and learning and doing all kinds of fun things, and in the meantime a bunch of fun stuff I wrote has been released and the ARCs have been piling up.

not actually all of them

I am finally listening to Lucas and my husband about the book thing and I really am going to start stopping reviewing any month now. The problem now is I keep saying yes to books that add to my existing oeuvre in some way (for example, picked up two Icelandic novels following the Icelandic book of poetry and the Icelandic novel I reviewed), that are by authors of color or women, or that are fun, quirky genre fiction no one else wants to review for one specific magazine (staring at two long novels like this right now). There are so many more books in those categories than I believed possible, so I keep saying yes to them because surely there can't be many more Icelandic novels in translation that editors really want me to write about? (Turns out, yes, there can.) I'm still oddly unbooked (ha HA) between mid-November and January, but maybe that's an opportunity for me to relax on it.

I've stopped asking for galleys of books out prior to January. This is a step forward.

I want to blog for you about a couple of specific topics (release/looking away from the horse, driving in California/landscapes of belonging), but I have some other things to tell you about in the meantime. They are out in the world things, but they're more thoughtful than the usual litany of announcements.

1. Quite at random, Medium picked up and featured my story about "the new normal of retail" - indeed, they renamed it that - and I'm so glad they did. I'm astonished at the bump they gave, how positively it's affected my numbers on Medium and spreading out to other social media. If you're reading this because you read that story, well, hi and thanks. If you're from Medium, reading this, I'd really like some more information on how to get this kind of bump on other stories. I mean, text me at 3 AM if you'd like. The piece got thousands of views, which is thousands more views than any story I've ever done.

2. Today, Memoir Mixtapes released its new issue, "Guilty Pleasures," and my piece about Celine Dion, "If You Whisper Like That," is the closer. This is the first catered thing I've written in a long time (i.e. a thing I wrote specifically in response to a call for themed submissions), and I had a blast writing it. I hope you have as much fun reading it. I also want to point out how incredible the Memoir Mixtapes project is, how useful it is to wrap memoir around music. It makes the memories easier to write and shape, and the connection with readers stronger. I hope the editors keep publishing this magazine forever.

3. I interviewed Alice Hatcher, debut author of The Wonder that Was Ours, for the Masters Review. I couldn't place a review of this book, for whatever reason, but I was not willing to give up on promoting it to the world somehow. It was a book that I couldn't stop thinking about for weeks, one of the most interesting books I've read this year, and not being able to review it was super annoying. I also wanted, very much, to give Alice the opportunity to speak about the race issues swirling between her and her material. I felt concerned, when I read it, that many readers (progressive readers who mean well) would dismiss the book out of hand as inauthentic and co-opt-y. I knew from reading that it was not those things. Getting out ahead of this accusation with an on-record interview felt like the right thing to do, and I was very happy to do it.

4. I was featured on! I really was! The piece is a little more commercial and plain than the kind of thing I normally write (especially with the added section titles), but it's about something I did with tarot cards on New Year's Day which I really wanted to explain in detail. I'm not always this kind of person, this horoscopey taroty person, but sometimes I am, and here's the proof. Also, I'm telling you, every one of the monthly cards has been correct. September is the King of Wands, and I'm scared to death of what it could mean. There's a couple of personal projects that could explode into merriment and success, but I don't want to assume and be greedy. I'm so excited that my name is on, though. I don't know why; it just feels really special. Also, I got to commission/pay/promote a friend for the graphics.

5. In the next week or so, an interview I conducted and an experimental essay I wrote will go live. The interview is pretty amazing, but if its flavor is cookies and cream, the essay is salmon-pickle-pistachio. It takes on an established writer with a degree from Iowa, and it quotes a few popular writers at enormous length. I'm worried about pushback, and/or that no one will read it. I'm worried that I've said some stuff I can't take back or contextualize. At the same time, I'm really proud of the piece; it garnered a handwritten rejection from Conjunctions before it landed where it did.

I've learned that being away from routine as a freelance writer is a WHOLE DIFFERENT BALLGAME from being away from routine as a regular worker, or even a copy-editor-from-home. I'm troubled enough by everything on my to-do list that I'm kind of procrastinating finishing this blog post, because then I'll have to start on tasks. A friend said about freelancing that she stopped doing it in part because she was "tired of the everything." Yes. That is exactly it. The constant, neverending everything.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Best Rejection I Ever Got

This morning I set out to write a post to sum up a conversation Matt and I had this week about why the most unusual character in a given universe is obligated to be the narrator of the story. Why not tell the story of the Death Star from the perspective of a random Imperial officer, for instance? But as I wrote I got hopelessly tangled, and I do not have the concentration to untangle it all today.

Tomorrow I leave for a weekend away, and as soon as I return I'm leaving again for a week away. The destinations are different, and I have two fully equipped sets of anxiety about the trips. Yay.

So instead I'll tell a story I meant to tell some weeks back. One of my planned tripartite film essays is about Last Tango in Paris, a film I don't particularly love but which gave me an incredible epiphany when I was about 20. There's this wonderful film site, Bright Wall/Dark Room, which publishes long, thoughtful, specific, intelligent essays about film and media. The site put out a call a while ago for a themed issue on "Body." This is the precise theme around which I had loosely assembled my ideas for the Last Tango essay; it was the focus of my epiphany.

I was pretty slammed at the time, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to match a tripartite essay with a market and themed issue that coincided with it. So I emailed the editor to say hi, I'm Kat, I write weirdo essays about film, I really want to work with you, I have this idea but no time to execute it, how strict is your deadline for this themed issue? I included links to the tripartite essays I'd previously published, in the hope that the editor would see how neatly my work matched with his site.

He wrote me back promptly, and I hope I'm not misinterpreting his email to say he seemed as excited about working with me as I was about working with him. However, he said, the deadline is moot. After he and the other editors at BW/DR found out about Bertolucci's treatment of Maria Schneider during the filming of Last Tango, they decided never to feature an essay about that film on the site. They didn't want to break that rule even for a promising and/or feminist essay. He said he was sorry about it, but would love to see other work from me in the future.

I was overcome. What a refreshing, ethical, transparent, reasonable rejection. What a splendid perspective! What a fantastic team of editors. Whatta mag.


I legitimately bounced up and down in my chair. And I wrote back as effusively as possible to say thank you all for being goddamn human beings and of COURSE I'm not upset to get turned down for that reason. And let me figure out a way to work with you soon.

The following month I pitched another idea, which the editor showed interest in, and which I have since failed to write timely. Way to go, Kat; sabotage a relationship before it's a relationship. I really do mean to write it, but my discipline bucket is totally empty at the moment.

Two of the books I reviewed at the beginning of August seem to have taken all the air out of me. I've blogged about them before, but I'm still kinda blaming them for my inertia during these last couple of weeks. I haven't read any books this week, and I think it's because of the page count of those others. Also, I was disappointed in both books (in very different quantities), and usually it takes me a bit to get going again on reading after a couple of books I don't like.

Plus, as I told a client in the process of explaining why I completely failed to meet a self-imposed deadline this week, I conducted a handful of interviews this month that I wasn't expecting to, upping my workload. I think I've mentioned this before, so forgive me, but I don't understand why I've started getting requests to interview authors (sometimes completely out of the blue). My mentor Chris was entirely right to say that doing an interview series would help me a lot in terms of contact with authors and general circulation in the literary world, but I don't think interviewing is a particularly strong skill of mine. I'm grateful for the work and the confidence, and I'm also a bit baffled. Does it seem like I'm good at interviewing? Does this appearance of competence merely come from being a good reader?

As literally everything else successful this year has come, for me?

Out in the world:

I reviewed a book by Dawn Raffel with fascinating implications - The Strange Case of Dr. Couney - for the Mantle. I'm planning to work with them some more in the future. Very nice editor and wonderfully thoughtful site. The book is well worth checking out, and if it seems like it might even be a little interesting to you, grab it.

For this month's Books I Hate, I interviewed Kelcey Parker Ervick, the author of one of the finest hybrid texts I've ever read. She was lovely enough that the parenthetical part of the interview was really the primary one.

I reviewed a novel, Summer Cannibals, for the Arts Fuse. I liked the book, but my reviewer side had to be honest about its flaws. I'm looking forward to more work from this author - she writes extremely well.

And I reviewed a pretty difficult memoir, A Certain Loneliness, for River Teeth. I'm excited about appearing in River Teeth, where I've tried my essays a bunch to no avail, and I'm pleased to be able to give this book some attention. As with the other two books above, it's a flawed piece of work, but well worth reading. This book, like Dr. Couney, has more important qualities than whether it's perfectly crafted or not.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mostly About Stuff I Wrote

Well, this has not been an especially fun week. Which is a shame, because some really good stuff of mine got published.

For BUST (yay!), I wrote about Mara Altman's well-meaning and intellectually diligent but fundamentally problematic essay collection, Gross Anatomy. In fairness: although her collection veered away from feminism in some critical ways, she seemed to veer back toward it in the short interview with her that was tucked into the galley. Part of me wishes I'd given her more credit for what was in that interview, but a) space did not permit and b) what's in the book is in the book, and I'm reviewing the book. It failed to break the link between women's value and their physical attractiveness, and I'm not letting it off the hook for that.

An article I wrote months ago, about the tandem video game practices of my husband and me, finally appeared on Crixeo. Editorially, it was great to work with them, and they paid me well and rapidly, but the accompanying picture and layout of the article were sort of disappointing (as was the lag time - although I've finally figured out that weeks or months of lag time is par for the course, it's still irritating). Nevertheless, I'm grateful for the chance to write publicly about how Matt and I play together. I've heard that other friends of ours with the same configuration (husband works in video games, wife doesn't but is familiar with nerd culture) do the same thing.

Only one book review this week, and it's a good one: of an anthology about 1990s culture, Come as You Are. It's up at Barrelhouse, where I've been submitting my work since the mid-2000s. If I weren't so distracted by my un-fun week, I'd be over the moon.

Finally, I wrote my first piece for Popscure, a listicle + analysis of five 1970s movies. I stole the "hijinks ensue" bit from a blog post I read years ago somewhere on the internet. If I could remember where I found it, I'd either credit the post's author or remove the bit, but I can't remember. If I stole it from you, please contact me and I'll make it right. The actual article observes something I noticed after I watched Rollerball for the first time (having previously seen Logan's Run approximately 267 times and the other films in varying quantities). I'm looking forward to a similar article being written in 30 years or so about Arrival, The Martian, et al. Not that I think 1970s fashion will ever be bested.

It wasn't a good week because I suspect that a pitch of mine got...let's say repurposed, after an editor I've pitched many, many times rejected it months ago, and then published a curiously similar article by a staff writer this week. My own article appeared at a different outlet, back in June, so there's a paper trail. And it could be a coincidence. But I doubt it, which makes the world feel cold and petty.

Plus, my concentration has been really unreliable lately, which has given all my work a slapdash feel to me, even if it doesn't seem that way to others. There's roofing work happening at my place, which is a terrible, scary thing if you work at home and are sensitive to noise. And the gods overseeing weather, the mail, and the very practice of sleep have all deserted me recently.

The good news is that I planned August unusually well. I did okay with deadlines, and I don't have any other books to read or review urgently this month, just edits and check-ups on stuff I've already filed and pitches to push through. I have a practical task which should take me the rest of August to complete, but I'm not very stressed about it. Hence, I have these last two weeks of the month, this and next, to laze around and worry about what comes next.

Oh, well, okay then

What comes next is a bunch of cool stuff in September. Interesting reviews and good essays. But also volunteer work at CSUN, which will get me out of the apartment, which is good for me like flossing is good for me. And a handful of books for October and November that look pretty good, even though many of them are short stories.

I've determined for good and all across this year that I just don't like reading short stories. I just don't! I have tried hard to enjoy them but I do not enjoy them and that's all there is to it. So many books seeking reviewers (instead of books that are already assigned) are story collections, so I wind up reading them a lot, and I'm as fair to them as I can be in terms of craft and characterization and whatnot. But the truth is, I do not enjoy them. I do not, Sam-I-Am. But hey, maybe they're like flossing, too.

Friday, August 17, 2018

This is My 500th Post on This Blog

click to embiggen these 500 chickens; credit

I don't know how that happened, except one bite at a time. It amazes me that I've been keeping this blog for seven years, when it still feels...supplemental, I guess, like an appendix to my old anonymous blog. I would write anything in that blog, anything that came into my head or heart, at very great length. This one has such a different texture. I miss the freedom, but it's better that I no longer have an outlet for that level of self-indulgence.

So, happy 500th post to me. In celebration, I'm going to...write a blog post about writing.

#ShareYourRejections has been moving around writer-Twitter this week, and although mostly, people seem to be getting succor and relief from hearing how much rejection you face as a writer (truckloads), even or especially as a good writer, the people reacting ungenerously to it are doing so in predictable but still bothersome ways. I feel like this is expressive of Twitter generally: there's a pattern to how a topic moves through the Twitterverse, and I continue to hope people will break out of it, and they don't. I'm still learning how to use Twitter, and because I've never been very good at following patterns, I'm pretty sure I get it wrong a good part of the time. It feels simultaneously more confining and more dangerous than Facebook. I'm trying not to use either one too much, but what is too much?

I've read the two major books I needed to read for this month's work, and I feel so relieved. I'm lying to myself that it's still early August when it is clearly not, but the fact that I got both books read and at least one of them reviewed before August 20 feels like a major accomplishment. I'm allowing it to feel that way even if I have to pretend it's earlier in August than it is.

One book was the third in a 1,400-page trilogy, all of which I had to read, and the other was a 500-page Icelandic book that, oddly enough, is also a compiled trilogy. They both have skewed approaches to Christianity and creation, and they have a similar attitude toward WWII (as the primary wound of the 20th century). I'm thinking seriously of writing an article that compares them, although it's sheer chance that I noticed they have anything in common. Comparing them to each other mentally has been an interesting way to read them both, and I'd like to share that - although it's not perfectly fair to either, since they have totally different provenances and intents and moods and nationalities and etc. Dunno. I might wind up with nothing more to say about either once I've reviewed them both.

Contra last week's post, this week was not wall-to-wall promotion, because the two most significant bylines got bumped to next week. Which is probably fine; two reviews I didn't have definite dates for are live this week, so there's plenty to read (see below). Generally I try not to announce things that are happening or changing until they're irrevocably happening, because I have wound up with egg on my face too many times, having to walk back big announcements (or even medium-sized intentions). It's a unique species of embarrassment, and one that makes my skin crawl. So I play things close to the vest unless I am too excited or too certain not to.

On that note, I'm going wandering at the end of August. I signed up for an opportunity to spend time with wild horses outside of Bakersfield, got in on the waitlist, still can't believe it's happening, trying not to lean on it too hard as something to look forward to because it seems too beautiful and unlikely. After that I'm driving north to spend some fairly idle time in Portland and outside of it; I think I have more friends in Portland than in LA at this point, so I hope to see (or meet) as many of them as possible. In hindsight, I didn't plan my freelancing around my July vacation especially well, and I hope to avoid that mistake this time. September is looking okay, only two books I haven't read, but October is heavy.

However, the date of the very last ARC on my desk is November 13. I have nothing for later in November or for December. I've been asking around for titles, and I keep getting sent books that are already out, instead. I'm thinking I might take this as a signal to use that time in a different way, whether I write more tripartite essays, work on interviews, make progress on the Casablanca novel, look for residencies to apply for...I don't know. Maybe something will change in September.

Out in the world:

I reviewed Kristi Coulter's Nothing Good Can Come From This for the Chicago Review of Books. Kristi and I have gradually developed a friendship across 2018, but I wrote this review before I lost objectivity (if I did lose it; if I ever had it). We have a lot of acquaintances, followers, and friends in common, so you may already have read this book. But if you haven't, I hope you do.

I reviewed This Mournable Body, by Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga, for the Masters Review. I'm surprised at how widely reviewed this book has been, because I found it almost impenetrable. It'll go well on syllabi.

I reviewed Vanessa Blakeslee's short story collection Perfect Conditions, and then interviewed Vanessa herself, both for sinkhole. Vanessa was every inch a pro, both within her stories and when we exchanged emails about the interview. She writes exactly the kind of prose I've failed at repeatedly.

I reviewed SELF-Ish, by Chloe Schwenke, for the Los Angeles Review. I was genuinely sorry to write a mixed review, because Schwenke's story is important and difficult and necessary. But she needed more guidance than she got in turning that story into a memoir.

Next week: two fun articles, one sourpuss book-related piece. See you then, for my 501st post.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

53% New Footage

Here's a few things I want to tell you.

1) Next week I am going to have a different byline every single day. A couple of them are pretty big deals to me. But it's going to be a lot of promotion all at once, so if you follow me on social media, gird your loins.

1A) I realized in writing the above that byline = the line where you say who it's by. That pop you heard was my mind being blown.

2) I posted the below on Facebook the other day, and it was popular + about my writing life, so I'm reprinting it here.

On Saturday, my husband spent two hours sitting with me in front of my Excel spreadsheets, website, and "book reviews" document folder, calculating how much work I've done since December as a book reviewer. The point of this exercise was to help me figure out, using DATA and MATH, how to keep myself from transforming into a little ball of stress and split ends.

This came out of a conversation we had last night when he admitted he was a bit worried about me and the stress I've been demonstrating re: my freelance work. I realized in the course of our conversation that he was asking me to put together a budget - not for money, but for time. I knelt next to his chair with epiphanic glee, telling him that of COURSE I can't manage my stress about freelancing, because I can't budget worth a damn! So he agreed to help me figure it out.

The results of our data-gathering were shocking. I've written 49 reviews in the past eight months. Forty-nine. That is so many. I knew it was a lot, but I could not have put a number that high to my idea of "a lot." In that same timeframe, I've published 14 non-book-review essays. Also a lot. (I begin to understand why I've made only middling progress on my book.) I assigned a difficulty number to every review I've written and have yet to write, and averaged out how much difficulty each month held for me. For example, even though I wrote half as many reviews in April as in May, April was a more stressful month, because the difficulty number was higher. SO helpful, and something I never would have considered doing, because my mind just doesn't work that way.

We discovered that, as of August 4, I am full up for the month in terms of work assignments. If someone asks me to write something else in August I will have to say no. I have eight reviews to write, plus two articles, plus placement of an interview, plus a 140,000-word book to copy-edit, plus pitches for October books, plus (probably) edits on the reviews I've filed that haven't been looked at by editors yet. Plus other things too fiddly and tentative to put in this summary.

In sum, I married an amazing dude, my stress is not imaginary, and numbers can be helpful instead of not.

3) I wrote something about James Gunn that, so far, has brought me a lot of heartache and not a lot of happiness. Oh, well. Here's the piece, but because it was a hot take, I missed something a few people have brought up to me: I could/should have added that no one ought to get fired unfairly, but for now, equal opportunity unfairness is better than the alternative. I'm not comfortable with anyone at all getting unfair treatment, but philosophically, I don't think that life will ever be fair. People asking for Gunn's reinstatement seem to think it can be, and I simply don't. What I was trying to draw out is that instead of living charmed lives, maybe white men are closer to living normal, sometimes-unfair lives.

A friend pointed out the uncomfortable political dimension of Disney kowtowing to a right-wing nut, which is important commentary, but which is not where I belong as a writer.

4) Other stuff out in the world:

I reviewed Hunting Party, a book written in French by Agnés Desarthe and translated by Christiana Hills, for the Kenyon Review. This is one of the most prestigious publications I've landed in as of yet. I never, ever could've placed a short story with the KR; I know my limits and I'm simply not that good a writer. Placing a review there has plopped me back into a circular line of questioning I've been running around a lot in the past six months: am I an unusually good critic, or is there a dearth of people willing/able to write book reviews? The mean side of my brain says it's the latter, that a smaller pool means that even a little fish will get noticed. But I can't pin all of the (middling) success I've had this year on that assumption. There's just been too much. Anyway, this book is really lovely, worth putting on a syllabus, and I'm proud and pleased to have placed the review at the KR.

That's actually it for this week. But next week, hoo boy. My tracker says six articles, reviews, or interviews. Might end up being seven or eight.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Complete Statement on My Middling Success

In the past month I've heard more often than usual that it's hard for friends to keep up with the number of links to my work I'm posting. In reply I have tried to say, yes, me too. Even though that's true, I realize it sounds kind of bad, because I'm the one posting the links, so obviously I can keep up with them.

But I use a spreadsheet. Seriously. It has five categorized tabs and dozens of rows and without it, I would miss all my deadlines, lose all my pitch ideas, and go insane. I updated it this morning. I have filed twelve (12) pieces that haven't been published yet, most of which I expect out in the next month. At least that many again have been assigned to me.

This is not me bragging, I swear. I've been wanting to write this post for a while, and I feel like I've been writing breadcrumbs of it in many recent posts. What I want to say is that being prolific has been primarily a job (and not a very hard one at that), rather than a cotton-candy dream come true, and I don't expect you, friends and readers, to give a damn about every last thing I'm publishing. But I want to say it at length.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Vacation, HAVE to GET Away

I'm on vacation. Sort of.

My family didn't take vacations when I was young. My father was not a vacation guy; he was about as far from Clark Griswold as you can imagine in terms of wanting the family to be a certain way, or building silly/heartfelt traditions, or anything like that. I remember visiting my grandparents on both sides a few times when I was young; I remember going to summer camp; I remember going skiing in the winter. I don't remember going somewhere other than our home during the summer for relaxation and sightseeing. It just wasn't a thing we did.

These days, my husband and I rarely take vacations. We went on a honeymoon in 2011. We went on a trip a few years ago to the state of Washington for a friend's wedding, and extended the stay for a week in which we utterly, totally relaxed. I read Proust and stayed off Facebook. We looked at the view and ate croissants. It was wondrous. Last fall we went to the UK, but due to a miscalculation on my part, that trip turned out to be more stressful than relaxing, and some of it felt like work.

But that's it. We've been together for 12 years and have taken two full-relaxation vacations, one of which was our honeymoon.

Most of our vacation time at present is spent seeing family. Which is lovely, but not relaxing. Relaxing, to me, means zero expectations set or met. It means no sightseeing or activities unless in an equal ratio to napping in a hammock. It means no need to wear pants or makeup. Our families don't operate this way on vacation, so there's always adjustment of expectations at the beginning of a trip. I must remind myself that hammock time may be my priority on vacation, but it isn't my hosts'.


We have friends who go on trips to Japan and Italy who bustle through their weeks there, seeing things and doing things and going to fancy dinners and meeting new people. I have an acquaintance who spent his honeymoon on an African safari. I respect and sometimes love those people, but I still consider them slightly nuts. For me those would be stressful vacations, which is a contradiction in terms, right? Vacation is for fun and relaxation. Information intake is not relaxing to me. I do information intake for a living.

The arc of every Vacation movie involves learning to reconnect with family in spite of all the superficial trappings of whatever the relevant holiday trip is and means. Leaving out those trappings in the first place saves me a bunch of steps.

So here I am on vacation, relaxing to about half the degree I ideally would. Which is great; it's still relaxation. But since I've started working from home, I've lived in such wonderful quiet, with so much time to let my own thoughts bounce around the inside of my head. Being with people who expect my attention is more of an oddity than it is the norm now. So I'm looking forward to getting back home, to the peace and quiet to which I've become accustomed, rather than being here on vacation with animated loved ones who have lots to say and ask.

Out in the world (vacation does not stop bylines):

An essay about non-standard writing reference books at CRAFT. I really enjoyed writing this essay, because you wouldn't believe how often I've tried to insert these books into online advice threads only to be buried by "On Writing On Writing On Writing".

I reviewed New Poets of Native Nations for sinkhole. I called it a perfect anthology and I'm not exaggerating. Buy it. Also, I love reviewing for sinkhole, and hope to do lots more of it.

I reviewed The Blurry Years, by Eleanor Kriseman, for the Masters Review. It was an unusual book. The editor let me get away with a lot of vaguenesses, which I wrote in so I wouldn't spoil the reading experience. I'll say this: the book has a scenario in it that I have never seen in any other book, ever. If you like coming-of-age novels, particularly about girls, don't miss this one.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Unscheduled Leaps

I drafted this post in October of 2017. I was too much of a fraidy-cat to post it then, but as I continue to mull and feel things about leaving my job at the end of March (when will I stop feeling things about it? nngh), it begins to seem like posting this is important. So I edited it a little and here it is.


There's a lot to tell you about the last three months of non-blogging. A lot of things I did and saw that I want to record and analyze. I read Our Mutual Friend and it put me off reading for about a month; I wrote the beginning of a very hard thing, and keep finding more of it squirting out around my edges; I had some experiences with ...mmmteachingkindof and I really really loved them. I went to Santa Fe and regained my center, the feeling of what makes me me.

But here's the main thing: I'm proverbially riding off into the sunset from my job.

Git along, li'l rexy

Sort of. I'm not leaving my job entirely, and I'm not withdrawing from it soon. I'm planning on working for the law firm I work for essentially forever, or for as long as they'll have me, but I'm cutting about 3/4 of my hours gradually over the next four months. [This turned out not to be feasible, in a way that's still disappointing. That job is gone for good.]

I don't have other plans for money right now. I don't have another job, and I don't have other opportunities on the table - aside from those I've applied for, which has little to do with getting them. But I'm sinking, losing ground creatively and just-general-life-ly, and it's because I spend 7:00 am to 8:00 am every morning driving all of 15 miles to get to work, and then I spend most of my afternoon hours sprawled on my couch or in front of my computer decompressing from the experience of work. I may be a hopeless wimp in terms of how most people do modern American life, but that's irrelevant; what's relevant is this way isn't working for me.

It wasn't any fun to realize I needed to do this, and it took me a year between realization and action. A YEAR. I don't know what would've happened if I'd leapt earlier, but I didn't, I'm leaping now, and here's what happens next.

  • I'm teaching a sentence workshop on November 11 for San Fernando Valley-area writers. 
  • I'm running a monthly writing group that's growing in interesting ways. 
  • I'm volunteering at CSUN, working with students on the literary magazine. 
  • I'm in the early stages of partnering with [redacted]. 
  • I'm applying for proofreading and copy editing jobs, even weird ones. 
  • I'm long-distance-volunteering at [redacted] to mentor young writers. 
  • I'm querying agents with my writing craft book and my urban fantasy book. 
  • I'm querying small presses with the other two manuscripts: the secret project and an essay collection. 
  • I'm making zines of my littler work. 
[I can't believe it, but almost none of this worked out. 
  • The sentence workshop was terrif and I want to do another one, but I still suck at promotions & marketing and can't afford to pay anyone to do it for me. If I'm going to teach workshops, something has to happen to draw strangers into them rather than just friends: a book, a partnership, a marketing campaign, something. I don't know how to make this happen other than what I'm already doing. 
  • The monthly writing group has dissolved because it was an astounding amount of emotional effort and people kept blowing it off. When I stopped sending emails about the group early this spring, no one spoke up to say they missed it. 
  • Volunteering worked out great in terms of enjoying myself, but did not net the main effect I was doing it for. 
  • Partnering broke even, but that's about it. 
  • I'm not applying for those jobs anymore - no time, with my writing schedule. 
  • The mentoring thing totally blew up for reasons not of my making. 
  • Still querying but nothing has happened. 
  • Making the one zine was a good idea but has netted almost nothing practical (interest from a publisher, etc). I'm trying to decide whether I should attempt something bigger for my next one, still handmade but with a press instead of a printer, but it's too overwhelming to think about with all else going on.] 
All of this is stuff I can do. I know I am weak at marketing myself, but I'm strong at distributing my energy to a variety of points. Like a seed strewer instead of a seed planter. I'm also strong at my passion, so I'm leaning into volunteering for what I enjoy, instead of waiting and hoping for something paid + passionate to cross my path. Yeah, I hope the volunteering will lead to a job somehow, but the volunteering is adding to my life in itself.

I have other ideas. And I have essays and books to write. And I have piles and piles of other people's books to read. It's all too much to do while holding down a decent job, so the job had to go [this was the main truth I avoided facing for too long, and now that I have, it's so much better] ...or at least to morph. I was scared to ask, but I did, and it turned out okay. 

So here I go. Leaping. 

High hopes for a soft landing
If you want to help, subscribe to my newsletter, tell someone else about my blog or my newsletter, or share links to my work. You can also spread the word about me locally, if you live in LA. If you want to partner with me to teach workshops in your area, I might be down for that.

If you don't want to help, cool. Not everyone has to love me. 

Pictured: me when excited to see someone

(Truth is, the gifs I got when I searched "cat leaping" and "dog leaping"
were so amazing I couldn't stick with just one.) 

Friday, July 6, 2018

A Networking Story (with Parentheticals)

What a month it's shaping up to be. Six of my reviews will appear in four publications, plus there are six more that could appear this month, plus a super-fun listicle I can't wait for you to read. I've attracted a lot of wonderful books to myself in the recent past, even if some of them are very long. The past week has not been especially productive, but I think I was burned out. I read 21 books in June. That number includes a couple of 40-page chapbooks and a couple poetry books, but still. That's a lot.

In another week I'm going on vacation and I'm taking both work books and fun books with me. I decided my trip-out plane book will be The Grip of It, which I really should've read last winter when duncan recommended it, but now it's finally on my coffee table. Can't wait.

Today I want to tell you a story. I constructed it with fictional names and titles to make it clear, but still anonymous.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Sawdust in My Gas Tank

I did not ask my therapist this week if her other patients are being as strongly emotionally affected by domestic news events as I am. Did not, but wanted to. I retreat deeper into my creative life and further away from what's out there, and I feel ever guiltier about it. I know myself well enough to know there isn't another choice, and that what I really think, it's not a good idea to spread it around. I was wrong about Melania, I think - not all the way wrong but mistaken about her willingness to be used politically - so it's probably best not to use my brain on such things. I'm okay being wrong; I'm not okay being in a state of hyperalert despair all the time.

can't sleep, CNN'll eat me

That said, the news from the creative side is largely good. I'm relieved to be running slightly ahead of schedule on books for review - have read all the July and August releases in the pile, have reviewed almost everything with a deadline, am working on reading and placing September and October releases now. With two exceptions, one of which is 450 pages and already out, one of which is 530 pages and due in August. So I'll be okay, but I can't exactly relax.

I wrote a tripartite essay that I've been prevaricating about since January, so I feel great that it's done (though not without whining). I'm waffling on whether to try and write another one before July 5. There's a deadline that day that suits the essay very neatly, but I really don't know if I can put it together in a week.

A crème de la crème publication expressed interest in a pitch but is taking an anxiety-inducing amount of time to get back to me about the finished piece. A publication that's a big goal of mine for essays accepted a review pitch. (Subtopic: I feel weird about saying in bios and pitches that my work has appeared somewhere when it's a review, and the pub is best-known for a specific genre. Especially a genre in which I write. But it's technically true.) A publication that's almost as big a goal of mine accepted a regular pitch and I'm deeply afraid I'll fuck it up. Two! two! editors responded to my pitches saying they'd read my reviews. My response was this tweet:

And for the past couple of weeks I've been participating (very badly) in the #1000wordsofsummer project, where Jami Attenberg writes us a note of support every day and we hold each other up on Twitter. I thought this project might, at least for a couple of weeks, get me to work more consistently, instead of the way I do it now, where some days I write morning and afternoon, some days I read in the morning and write in the afternoon, and some days I read both morning and afternoon and don't write at all. And it isn't predictable or dependent on a schedule, it's just what seems like the right thing to do that day. I also hoped that I'd be writing purely creative stuff for all of the daily pages, preferably all on the same project.

None of which happened! I didn't write every day, I "cheated" by writing reviews on some of the days (it's way easier to make myself write reviews than creative work), and I varied what I worked on, depending largely on fancy. I think this might've been my last major attempt to train myself to write every day. My one half has tried to teach my other half that I'm untrainable in this regard many, many times. Maybe this time my other half will goddamn listen.

But I did finish that essay during the two weeks, and wrote something fun about Celine Dion. It was a helpful exercise to participate even as much as I did, much more so than not doing it and being petulant and snotty about it, which is what I always do when NaNoWriMo comes around.

Out in the world:

This month's Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) was with Eileen G'Sell, whom I admire a lot for her astounding fashion game as well as her skill with words. Check it out.

I reviewed my mentor Dr. Haake's book for Anomaly. I filed this review in late 2017, but delays on one side and then another have pushed it to now. I think it was worth the wait.

I reviewed a fascinating thriller for LARB, The Captives, by an author who can boast a gap of 20+ years between her first book and her second. The gap reminds me of Tillie Olsen, but the book sure doesn't. It's an extremely good thriller and I'd love to mail you the ARC if you want it.

Monday, June 18, 2018


Some months ago I listened to a five-year-old interview from the Longform podcast. I believe that a lot has changed at Longform since October 2013, which was when the interview was conducted, and I'm certain that a lot has changed in the life of the subject, Elizabeth Wurtzel. So I can't really guarantee anything about how this interview went, or could be interpreted, except for what I got out of it.

Wurtzel is a tricky figure. She ripped the lid off mental illness with Prozac Nation, made it a topic that was no longer taboo (even if it's still not as easily discussed as it could be), and then she did a whole lot of drugs, wrote some weird books, and behaved really weirdly on the public stage. She seems like she's a difficult person, generally, and that her solipsism has been nurtured in an unfortunate, almost pathological way by her early fame. As a writer she is not someone to rely upon, or even admire, but I believe she's always going to be someone to watch.

I listened to this interview because Prozac Nation meant a lot to me when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and I wanted to know what she'd sound like. She sounds weird, is the answer. She self-contradicted a lot, and when called on it, used slippery rhetoric and arrogance to elude admitting she was mistaken. She redirected or restarted her sentences more often than not. She said some generally insulting things and threw her weight around inordinately.

Nevertheless, there's a certain quote from this interview that I've been mulling over since I listened to it. Which was when I still had a day job, so, like, in March or before. I can't stop thinking about it.
E: I also did not stop bugging people. I mean, people don't know how to do that anymore. They think that you can get things done with a text message. You can't get things done with a text message.

Q: What does bugging people mean to you?

E: It means asking people if you can do something until they say yes. I mean, you just have to ask until they say yes. 
The context had to do with how to get opportunities as a writer. She emphasized that you have to beat doors down and be insistent and annoying before you get the kinds of opportunities you want.

I've pitched reviews to a certain editor at a prominent publication at least a dozen times. Probably closer to two dozen. When I was about to give up on his publication a couple of months ago, he wrote back, with the email subtext of a heavy sigh, to tell me that he'd ask his colleague if they had anything for me. He never got back to me with an assignment, but even that email was proof that being persistent was closer to the answer than giving up was. I mean, you do risk being annoying enough for an editor to block you or ignore you or continue turning you down forever. But as soon as I think in that direction, I think about this Wurtzel quote.

To break it out a little further: a) Giving up is not going to get me closer to a yes from that editor, or any other. That's a guarantee. No one who gave up has reached the top of any mountain. b) Every editor interview I've ever read that talks about the submitting styles of men and women says that generally, men keep trying forever, while women give up after some variable amount of rejection. Considering that, men are statistically more likely to get published. That's not a VIDA thing, that's a pure numbers thing. Men try more, so they succeed more. The person who keeps trying is statistically more likely to get up the mountain. c) It's possible that being too annoying is going to get me no further than giving up. But I don't know that.

That means, if only in percentage, not even considering what feeds the soul, there is less harm in being persistent than there is in giving up.

So I'm going to be persistent. I'm going to keep pitching that damn editor, asking him if he has anything for me, bugging him, until he says yes. I got a third rejection from a women's mag the other day that said "please keep pitching me." Early last week I got a nibble on a pitch at a super-snooty publication, and that guy didn't write me back after I sent the full article, so you better believe I'm gonna ask him about it early this week. If he didn't like it, I'm going to try it somewhere else, and somewhere else, and somewhere else. Until it lands or becomes irrelevant, I'm going to keep trying it.

So thanks, Elizabeth Wurtzel, for giving me the words to whisper to myself every day, staring at the inbox. Just keep bugging them until they say yes.

Somewhat related: I got started on writing 1,000 words every day on Friday. I really wish this had not started on a Friday, but it did, so I got going. I picked up where I'd left off on the Citizen Kane essay and I have a pretty good trajectory for what's going in next. I'm a bit worried that the ideas won't all hang together once I'm done drafting - more so than I have been on a trifecta essay thus far - but it's early yet to be judging.

My ARC pile is juicy right now, and everything is decently far off, so I'm happy. Full measures of good and bad in the past week in terms of writing news.

Out in the world:

VERY IMPORTANTLY: I wrote a long, wacko essay about Sean Penn and Amanda McKittrick Ros, and the Millions very gracefully accepted it. I am sharing this piece everywhere, persistently, annoyingly. I love and am proud of it and perhaps I'll tell you why in another post sometime. Though I did already write this about it.

I interviewed Kelly Sundberg for TRUE. Her memoir, Goodbye, Sweet Girl, is a stunning piece of craft with an amazingly confident voice for a first book. Grab it before it becomes the next Wild and you're mad you didn't get in on it early.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Scraps from an Off Week

Let us say that this week included multiple self-inflicted setbacks. One of them involved fire. Not a metaphor.

Onward: I signed up for this cool thing Jami Attenberg is doing where we're all together supposed to write 1,000 words per day every day for two weeks in late June. You can sign up for it yourself here. I signed up with the idea of knocking out a substantial chunk of the Casablanca novel, but now I'm not sure. I have a lot of little projects I'd like to get done. My plan from last week to write an essay every day this week didn't pan out; see the short paragraph above. Maybe next week I'll do the little stuff to make way for something bigger.

I don't usually get upset about celebrity deaths, but losing Anthony Bourdain leaves a big hole in culture shaped exactly like himself and no one else. We'll be sorting out his legacy on gastronomy, travel, encountering the Other, and a smattering of other cultural matters for a long time. It'd be nice to've had him around to help us sift through all that.

I've got a music memoir on my ARC pile, so I pitched a handful of prominent music mags this week. They got back to me lightning fast - all with passes, but friendly and encouraging and unbelievably speedy ones. Part of me wishes I'd followed my college-era bliss and become a music journalist after all. I'm sure there are downsides to that profession, but at the moment I can't think of any.

Some days I want to stop doing this altogether, particularly when the reasons I do it are so esoteric. Higgs once assigned us a paragraph about why we write, to be handed in the following week. It took me longer to do it than assignments of many, many pages. And then he forgot to ask for it, so we never handed it in. For me it's not as simple as self-expression or leaving something behind or ego; elements of all that, sure, but it's more about communication - the hope that someone is out there reading, needing me to write exactly what I've written for her brain to hum in just the way she likes. Still, the confirmation that I'm communicating with people who want that hum is rare, and the sense that I'm sliding down into a muddy pool hole filled with dead bodies is frequent.

I cannot more highly recommend Ghost City Press's summer microchapbook series. I've been getting it in my email for two weeks now and YOWZA. It's free. Sign up. Start every day (through September!) with cutting-edge contemporary poetry.

Out in the world:

I reviewed a wonderful novel, a lovely deep-dive novel-type novel, for the Arts Fuse. It's about these two badass Surrealist artists who went on to spread propaganda against the Nazis at great risk to themselves. I loved it. And I think I'm going to read the rest of Rupert Thomson's work, now, too.

I also reviewed a hard-to-pin-down book of cultural criticism for Cleaver. It will interest a really small slice of the population, I think, but it was worth reading.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Hobby Without a Horse

Even though the oppressiveness of a San Fernando Valley summer is nigh, I'm really happy it's June. May was terrific, full of good fortune and joy, but for whatever reason it felt LOOOONNNNGGG. June is exciting for at least two of the bylines that'll appear. One in particular.

Matt asked me the other day how often a piece gets published that I'm genuinely proud of. I told him it was something like one in 20, which feels like a really low estimate, but one in 10 isn't right either. I put a list of them on my website under "Favorites," but the reasons I am proud vary. Some have to do with me being able to write about something I am particularly passionate about, or something that I feel like I have knowledge of that few others do. The piece I wrote about Encircling, for instance; I don't know that a lot of people, no matter what kind of reader they are, have read all the multivolume books I've read, or would draw the same conclusions about them that I do. That makes the piece fairly uniquely mine. (It also makes its appeal pretty limited - how many people care about an obscure Norwegian literary trilogy? - but I can live with that.) The June byline I'm excited about regards one of my favorite hobby-horses, and it makes me burst with pride that other people are going to read about me riding it. Even if only a few others care.

hobby meets horse

Ideas are flowing but I'm feeling less excited about them, because it's starting to seem like I won't have time or interest enough to execute them all. During my freakout a while back I asked Lucas if he thought I should take a few days away somewhere (same place I went last April, I thought maybe) just to write, to wring all the ideas out of my head and then see which ones were viable. He said he didn't think so, in part because I have all day now alone in my apartment to write, and clearly the ideas aren't motivating me enough to put them down.

Here's the thing, though. The piece I'm so happy about coming out in mid-June - I sent twelve pitches on that piece, and no one wanted it. But I knew it was a good idea, so I wrote it. The accepting editor called the finished piece "epic." Certainly I think I'm at my best in full form instead of when pitching, but also, for some pieces, the execution is simply better than the idea. A handful of my pitches have gotten nibbles but nos, and I am just as sure as I am for this June piece that they're good ideas. I think I ought to just write them and see what happens. But getting a pile of rejections on the pitch is discouraging enough to kill a piece's appeal in my mind.

My review deadlines are pretty far out at this time, though. Maybe I should spend next week just writing, putting short essays down, one after another.

There's one essay that I really have to write, because it does have a deadline, but I don't remember if it's July or it was April, and maybe the kind person who set the deadline wasn't interested enough in my work to tell me when the deadline passed, and I'm too scared to look at the email to find out for sure. I wanted to finish it by the end of May but that didn't happen. (Hire me! I'm not paralyzed by deadlines at all!)

Otherwise, as hinted above, I'm slowing my pace a little bit on reviewing. The pile of books is getting further out, datewise, and shorter. I'm sneaking in books for my own pleasure instead of reading only for review. Last night I started reading Samuel Beckett's Molloy, and even though that sounds hard, I found it kind of soothing, the rhythm of it and the simplicity of the words. Between January 1 and May 31 I read 57 books. Counting them up helped me realize that it's okay to feel a little fried.

Pitches are landing fairly well, but I am 0/7 on residencies/fellowships/contests this year. And those are just the ones that've been announced. I alternate years for when I feel optimistic and when I feel fed up on residencies/fellowships/contests, so in 2019 I won't apply for flippin' anything because to hell with you and your application fees. And then in 2020 I'll be like "but maybe..." and Hedgebrook will get my money yet again.

Out in the world: 

I reviewed MEM, by Bethany C. Morrow, for Locus. I think this book is going to be part of school curricula in the future, so get in on it now. It's great. 

May's Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like) interview was with Sassafras Lowrey, a fascinating writer. 

An interview with me about my short story "C-a-l-l-a-s" went up at Luna Station Quarterly. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

Deluded / Inexperienced / Just Really Bad

Last night, after over a week of trying, I finally finished Sean Penn's atrocious debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff. It's so terrible that I am numb with horror. As I explained to Matt, my state of mind recalls how I felt watching the first episode of Cop Rock: overwhelmed with the amount of work that had gone into this lotto-ball-tumbler of bad ideas, feeling stricken, astonished, that no one considered how bad, how really really bad, it all was.

If this is the first time you've heard of Cop Rock, it is (rather amazingly) just what it says on the tin: a police drama with many musical numbers per episode. I didn't believe the person who first told me this, but I promise it's true. This is my favorite number

You might already know about me that I am an outright connoisseur of bad film. I love it. I love what it reveals about good film. Plus, occasionally I come upon films that are basically outsider art, delightful in their lack of adherence to conventional cinema--even if the results are (for most people) unwatchable. Bad writing is a slightly different situation. The reason I was reading Sean Penn's book at all is related to some very bad turn-of-the-century writing I'm familiar with, and a feature I'm writing about that similarity. (Stay tuned.) But I learned from my flirtation with that writer of old that bad writing is, for whatever reason, not as easy in the intake process as bad film is.

A lot of people who make bad art are either inexperienced or deluded. A filmmaker like James Nguyen (deluded) sincerely believes he's making good films, because, for whatever reason, he can't see the divide between his camerawork and Hitchcock's. He can't hear that his bad, echoey, overclocked sound is different than the crisp sound of the average dialogue scene in a commercial motion picture. Students I've met who write badly (inexperienced) have not read or written enough to encounter and understand some of the pitfalls of bad prose. They think that certain kinds of metatextual writing are fun and new (when in fact they are neither) because they don't understand what makes that particular metatext cringey and gimmicky instead of profound.

But I can offer no quarter to the makers of Cop Rock. They were highly experienced crafters of television. They had seen and made enough TV to be neither inexperienced nor deluded. And yet, what they made was so bad, a spectacular collision of dumb ideas. That was the root of the stunned sensation I felt during the first episode: I cannot explain this away with my usual analyses of bad art. They went into this with their eyes open and the product is still terrible.

That's close to how I feel about Sean Penn's book. I know that this person has read a lot of books and has done a lot of thinking. And this book is garbage. It's got as many bad ideas as Cop Rock but it adds "lazy" to the pile, which I find unforgivable in a writer. And I don't know how it happened this way. I'm no longer surprised that bad books get published with big money, because I have come to understand how that happens, even for people who have not a sliver of the name recognition Penn has. But I simply can't fathom that this lies behind a man who, for his many faults, never comes across as underprepared or undereducated when I see him at work.

(To be clear, I think Penn should've been cleared off the table decades ago when he was violent toward reporters and allegedly violent toward Madonna; I think he is hilariously pretentious; I don't think his choice of roles is especially interesting across time, except as demonstrations of Hi, Mom, I'm Acting; but I respect that he's particularly good at his job in a crowded field of middle-aged white male actors.)

The above may have been nothing but outtakes from the essay I'm going to write about this awful book. Or early exercises for a novella-length essay I want to write about bad movies. But I am unhorsed about the unfathomable badness of Bob Honey and had to let it out somewhere. Toward the end, I had to sit in the room where Matt was gaming to read it, because I didn't want to read it alone.

Out in the world:

Something hysterical (hysteria in this sense being composed of equal parts fun + anxiety) on Medium. It's no fun to have your favorite stress purchase be suddenly a source of stress.

A tiny memoir piece I wrote appears in issue 5 of Beacon Quarterly, a Portland-based, design-focused (?) magazine. I'm not sure I understand the magazine really at all, but I'm pleased that my words are in it. I saw a PDF, and they treated me well. What I wrote, "Five Stories, Collated," was designated as poetry, which isn't quite right but it's fine if they/you want to read it that way. In a few months, the issue will be free to view digitally, and I'll link to it again then.

My work appears in Tiferet's current issue (spring/summer 2018). It's a "tif," a short piece on the theme of transformation, and I feel it's not of the same weight and caliber as the full-length contributions in this really fine magazine. But I loved writing it - it's an idea I'd wanted to put out in the world for a long time - and I'm proud it's in print. Here's a link to buy a digital copy of the issue, should you desire to.

I reviewed a remarkable book, The Underneath, by Melanie Finn, for sinkhole. I liked working with them a lot - they turned down something weird of mine but assigned me this book instead, and all went well - and I'm already reading a second book for review for them. This book, though. It gave me the opportunity to dig deep about my opinions of New England and its darker side, and I'm grateful.

And I reviewed a writing reference anthology, Credo, for Craft Literary. I did my best to give it a mixed but not unkind review. The book means well, but it's got filler.

I've filed multiple other reviews and a couple of interviews, all soon to come. May ain't over yet.

Monday, May 14, 2018

In My Wildest Dreams

Over the weekend, my goal was to write three book reviews. I'm staring down a May 20 deadline for four separate reviews, one of which I've already filed, plus two soft deadlines for today (Monday). I really hate working close to deadline; I know it motivates some people, but it just makes me crazy, and I produce poor work. I wanted to get more than half of the five remaining reviews out of the way this weekend, rather than sweating next week. And I did: I wrote three reviews, meeting the soft deadlines and a second May 20 deadline, and I finished reading the third May 20 book. Which leaves me with six days to review that book and read and review the last one. Doable.

I was feeling good about blamming through these responsibilities--even though filing one review got me an assignment for another one, on a fairly short timeline--and I went into the living room to re-sort the book piles everywhere. There's a pile for no-deadline books, a pile for read-but-not-reviewed books, a pile for reviewed-and-waiting-for-edits books, and a few small piles of send-to-friends books. I neatened these, and an epiphany hit me like a train.

That first paragraph? With the six deadlines and the process of meeting them? That's my life now. It's what I do every day: read, review, pitch, write. I have a spreadsheet with all the ARCs I've requested, received, or been assigned, with slots for whether I've read it, pitched it, etc. When I file the review, I gray out the title, and when the review gets published, I delete the row and enter the book on the next sheet, where I have slots for social media promotion and informing the publisher and etc. This is how I stay sane, this spreadsheet, its tidiness keeping me from terror.

self-portrait with two left hands

The epiphany: this is the life I dreamed of when I was a little girl. Other kids dreamed of being astronauts or ballerinas, but I wanted to be a librarian. I wanted to be around books all day long, every day, forever. As an adult, I learned, to my enormous disappointment, that being a librarian is less about books than it is about customer service (thank you, Withdrawn). I decided to be a writer instead, making my life about books I create instead of books created by others.

At the moment, most of what I write about is books. When I look around my apartment, all I see is books. Yeah, it stresses me out and makes me sad that so many of them are going unread while I read assigned books I'm less excited about, but still: being surrounded by books, and thinking about books all day long, was my fantasy life as a child, and now it is my actual life.

(This life has come about through a series of unlikely and wholly unplanned events. I feel the need to point out and emphasize this, because more and more people are talking to me about my publications IRL and I'm flattered and pleased, but I don't know what to say to them. I feel like a hapless cheater: it just...happened.)

The point is, I haven't really looked around at my book-stuffed life with WhatDoesThisMean-O-Vision until yesterday. And I feel grateful, positively awash in gratitude. Yet I also feel overwhelmed. I don't want to stop writing about books, but I do want to slow down. A little insistent voice is telling me that this pace isn't sustainable. And of course I'm getting paid for less than half of what I'm writing. It's a better average than before, but I'd like to convert the work I'm doing with books into work that will pay well, and that will lead somewhere.

Because over the weekend, I got news that a meaningful boost I hoped I'd get as a reviewer is not coming to me. That boost had a trajectory that made sense, that looked like a natural next step. But no. At least for the next year, that boost isn't mine. So I'm floundering a little bit on my trajectory, unsure whether I'm actually sitting in a catapult or just a swingset, swooping back and forth in the same non-progressive arcs over the sand.

more positive self-portrait, except for the cat, because I'm allergic
(books and cats always seem to go together in culture, but I REMAIN ALLERGIC)

Out in the world:

I wrote about the new National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama for the Big Smoke. I wrote this, revised it a few times, and then held on to it, trying to sort out whether it wouldn't be better if I shut up and let non-white voices say everything possible about this museum. I also didn't really want to call out my family; there's complexity there. I talked it over with a few friends and my editor, and ultimately it went forward, and I've gotten some compliments on it (from white people, admittedly). No one has showed up at my literal or digital door to punch me and call me a racist, so I guess that means it wasn't a terrible move to publish it.

I reviewed a pile of interesting books recently.
  • So Lucky, Nicola Griffith, for The Arts Fuse. I've never read a book this streamlined, this angry--a book that feels like a pistol shot between the eyes, no more, no less. Nevertheless, it's not white-heat writing; it's multilayered and meticulous. Get into it. Particularly if you have chronic illness, or have a loved one with same. 
  • Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Deer Woman, an anthology, for ANMLY. I loved both of these books, but I particularly loved Trail of Lightning. It was so well-assembled, so full of heart and wit, and I fell stupidly in love with the main character. She reminded me of my own Berra Thorntree, so much so that I queried Roanhorse's agent. Didn't even get a request for a partial. Oh, well. 
  • Belly Up, Rita Bullwinkel, for LARB. I greatly admired this book but didn't like it. (You might; I suspect it's going to be acclaimed elsewhere.) I will watch this writer with eagerness and interest, in the hope that I can write her an unalloyed positive review someday. 
  • Stormwarning, Kristín Svava Tómasdóttir, for the Women's Review of Books. This is actually a profile more than a review, and I am owed approximately half of the credit for the final product. My editor was amazing. The book is amazing, too (say it with me: feminist Icelandic poetry); buy it here. Alas, this profile only appears in the magazine, but you can buy a PDF of the magazine at this link

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The Framed Narnia Map

In March, I submitted a short piece to a contest, the substance of which was writing about a precious possession. I didn't win, so here's the piece.  :)


Multiple maps of Narnia exist. The best one was drawn by Pauline Baynes in 1972, sixteen years after the final Chronicle was published. Some years later, Scholastic produced poster-sized versions of Baynes's map as promotions. I found one on eBay, creased down the middle for all time due to wonky, cheap lamination that also keeps the poster from lying flat. I paid something absurd for it, $100 or $150 for a poster that was once a free book advertisement. After the poster arrived, I spent a few hundred dollars more to have it framed in spiral-decorated hardwood with fancy UV-protection glass. It has hung on my wall ever since.

When we moved apartments, I asked my husband to put the framed Narnia map in his car and transport it himself instead of allowing the movers to pack it. When I assembled an earthquake plan, I thought about what I would save, and the framed Narnia map was at the top of the list. When fires raged near my home in late 2017, I thought of the things I would be sad to sift through ashes and see destroyed, and of all I own, the framed Narnia map made me the saddest.

I do this, I feel this way, because I consider the framed Narnia map irreplaceable. Irreplaceable: cannot be re-bought, re-made, re-owned: this is the only one I have access to, probably ever. I treasure it not just for this reason, but because I treasure Narnia, the place depicted in the map that lies under that expensive glass. It's the place where I felt like home, as a child, when my literal home shifted so often. Ten different bedrooms by high school, but Narnia was inside all of them--the blue-carpeted bedroom, the beige-carpeted bedroom, the black-carpeted bedroom. The paneled walls and the painted ones. Only Narnia never changed.

And now Narnia lives on my wall, a cheap, irreplaceable poster depicting all the places I believe in more fundamentally than heaven. The Lone Islands. Cair Paravel. Archenland. The books are troubling in the 21st century, the racism and the colonialism and the apologia. I do not care. Narnia is a home more precious to me than the four walls and roof that meet my hierarchy of needs. Pauline Baynes has drawn the map of my heart.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Mule Philosophy

It's May! It's May! No more April! The stress of April is over! *ssssnnnniiffff* Ahhh, fresh clean May stress. Like warm laundry. Or pollen. *sneezes*

The pile of books for reading/reviewing continues to menace me. It's a good pile, with splendid talent and great variation in it. It's just real, real tall.

I finished an emotionally difficult essay the other week. It was one of my tripartite essays, like "The Girl on the Bike," and this one dealt with my father and Apocalypse Now. I sent it to my mentor and she showed me spots where I could expand it, and I kinda said nah, and she said, well, I'm just looking for stuff to critique about it because it seems finished. So I sent it out. I've had this essay on my back for a really long time; the idea's been around for at least two years, and I started the draft in mid-2017, but the emotional prod has been there since high school. Really, really glad to have it out of my cells.

As for what's next, well. I experienced a minor implosion about two weeks ago trying to sort out what's going on with my potential projects. Thank God my friend Lucas (who's going to win all the poetry prizes one day; get in on him now) agreed to listen to me while I raved for a while about what was in my head. He helped me sort through the ideas and figure out a strategy for knocking them down. Part of that strategy was making a list of everything on my plate, and when I recited it to a couple of friends later they just stood there with their mouths open. More than a dozen essays of varying complexity; more than a dozen book reviews. Two books in progress; four books shopping.

Having new ideas is not the problem. Having the time to write and read is no longer the problem. Having the focus and wherewithal to do justice to the ideas on paper is the problem.

Also, I learned that it's not just that I'm a delicate, whiny flower when it comes to writing every day. If I write every day (if it's on different projects, not a binge on one project), the quality goes down sharply by the middle of the second week. I banged out a bunch of reviews and a few short essays in mid-April to meet some deadlines, but on one essay I had to break for two and a half days before I could write it well. My sentences turned to mush. So it's not just preference. People who insist that daily pages are the only way to write are flat wrong. 

The only thing that's working for me right now is imagining myself a mule: plod, plod, plod, one hoof at a time. This book in the morning, that review in the afternoon. This research in the morning, those pitches in the afternoon. Don't think about next week, just think about the next hoof on the ground. I am a natural long-term planner, but in grad school I learned how to live one day at a time, one item on the to-do list at a time, one bite of whale at a time, in order not to lose my damn mind from the stress of everything I had to do by the end of the semester. It was a major adjustment. And one of the best lessons of my adult life, so far.

At this time, though, the inundation of review work and the occasional picked-up pitch for normal nonfiction essays means that the lyric essays and the novel are falling by the wayside. Immediate deadlines aren't abating at all; in fact, they're increasing. Which is bad. The big drawback of the mule philosophy: long-term projects wither.

I think this will resolve as I get further away from my day job, and as my reviewing settles down and stops depending so heavily on pitching. (The latter, for the record, works like this: the more I land pitches, the more editors want to work with me again, which means that I have to work less hard to land the next book pitch--or I just get books assigned to me. Researching and pitching is enough work that taking it out of the equation lessens my workload greatly.) I realized not long ago that April was a month of recovery for me--from the unfortunate way the day job ended, from the major transition I coordinated at the day job before I left (which caused me such stress that I dreamed about work constantly), from the continued forcing of my square self into the round hole of an office job for three and a half years.

It sounds ridiculous that I'd have to recover from a perfectly normal job that I once loved, but once I applied the idea of recovery, a bunch of my behavior and limitations made sense, so I can't really deny it. Toward the end of April I started being able to spend most of the day working instead of about half of it resting, and I started being able to do normal chores without world-shaking dread. It hasn't been that way since last fall. I don't feel all the way healed, but I feel better.

It helps that I am happy every day. 

Out in the world: 

I reviewed Allison Coffelt's tiny book about Haiti, Maps Are Lines We Draw, for Brevity. It was terrific. I always love working with Brevity, too.

I couldn't make this article work in a longer form for any publications I had in mind, so I put it on Medium. It's about a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it's also really deep, about life and stuff like that.

I'm in this issue of Beacon Quarterly, but I don't know what my contribution looks like because I haven't gotten a copy yet.

I interviewed Neil Snowdon, who is totally wonderful, for Books I Hate. He gave it an enormous amount of time and thought; his insights there about horror are beyond the beyond.

After I read Ty Burr's fantastic book about the history of celebrity, Gods Like Us, I wrote a sort of review/endorsement of it essentially for fun, because I wanted the topic of his book (star studies) to be more widely known. This was years ago. It was too formal to post here and too short/casual to turn into something scholarly. I kind of desultorily looked for a place for it, and this week, it found a home: PopMatters. Burr himself retweeted it, generously.

Oh, that reminds me: I'm on Twitter now. I'd love for you to follow me, but just so you know, for now I'm using it for promotion rather than as a personal outlet. The latter is what Facebook is for.