Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Discomfort Is Not Its Own Reward

One of the essays I whipped out in December regarded a topic I'd been thinking about for months: how love is not always neatly boxed into one or another category, e.g. romantic love, platonic love, sibling love, etc. I wrote about my friend's not-quite-closed marriage (which is not open); about the attachment I have with another friend, who is a sister to me but whose body is a luscious part of our sisterhood; about a strange, filial/sexual/agape/physical love scene in a film I saw. The main thread of the essay was the platonic but helpless love I fell into last year with a person in my life who is unaware of that love. (Don't worry, sports fans, my marriage is sound [and closed].)

I termed all this "blurry love", and everyone I spoke to about the essay prior to writing it was enthused about the idea.

After I wrote the essay, I sent it to a small handful of people. No one gave me specific feedback. Matt read it and said it was good, but he always says that. People said they'd get back to me or just didn't respond at all. I thought it was missing something, though I wasn't sure what; I was impatient to revise it into something I was comfortable sending out. So I sent it to my monthly writing workshop group.

In doing so, I ignored a few mental warning bells. Most of the group knows the platonic-love person I refer to in the essay. And they certainly know me. There's uncomfortable stuff in the essay for sure, but that's the nature of what I'm writing about. Blurry love is uncomfortable. That's why I wrote the damn thing: to open up the discomfort of un-ordinary forms of love to discussion. I figured we were all grownups in the group, and besides, I went to great lengths in the essay to explain just how platonic was the love I describe.

A friend who has a fairly extensive friendship with the platonic-love person wrote me a few days before the group met to tell me she was not comfortable talking about the essay and she'd have to miss the meeting that week. She was perfectly kind, but it still upset me badly. I valued the friendship a hell of a lot more than the essay and I didn't want to damage it; plus, the essay felt like a failure, since no one wanted to talk about it. I worked hard on it, so that stung.

I deleted the essay from Google Docs and sent something else to the group instead. The friend and I hashed out what happened a little bit and decided to move on.

This past weekend, I finished Tim Kreider's forthcoming book of essays, and in it he ventures up to this same thesis of mine: that not all categories of love are as well-boundaried as we'd like to think they are. And, potentially, no categories of love really are, and culturally, we're calling certain what's really quite fuzzy.

In spite of Kreider, in spite of my own fervor for telling the ineffable, this essay might not be salvageable. Evidently no one, in any context, wants to talk to me about it, and that's basically insurmountable, since I know something's wrong with it that I can't see and that needs fixing. It's possible that I'm hitting a limit I've hit once or twice before: the point where discomfort is not its own reward, where the ineffable should remain ineffable so as not to make people's skin crawl at what I've written. In my mid-20s I wrote a handful of stories about men doing violence to women that attempted to comprehend the monstrous, and thus displayed it. I don't regret that work, but I (irrationally) wish to control it completely, to direct it toward people who need it and away from people whom it will hurt. That's not how creative work works, once it's in the world. This essay might be a mid-30s version of that work - teasing out a complexity that no one actually wants to read about.

It's also possible that the essay's just not that good. Not worth salvaging. That my creative feet are too big for this particular thematic tightrope. That hasn't happened to me in a while, but it does happen.

These past few weeks have held big ups and big downs. Dizzying highs, terrifying lows, and creamy middles, to quote Pater Simpson. I got in the mail a paper magazine with my name in it, and an accompanying check. Despite the plethora of online bylines and the handful of payments I've picked up in the past year, that was an unbelievable thing to hold in my hand. Then the secret project got rejected by my dream press.* A review of a book I completely adored can't find placement to save its life - I think I've hit 20 unsuccessful pitches on it - while a handful of reviews for books to which I was mostly indifferent (and one I didn't even like) have found homes in places I couldn't dream of hitting with my stories or essays. I got an acceptance for a story I'd trunked in 2014 and was only this final rejection away from trunking again. I am stressfully behind on reading, reviewing, and revising, as well as interviews, planning for the semester, planning my next solo workshop, and sleep. Also, for much of the past month I was operating under a poor medication choice that turned me into an emotional lunatic. Thank goodness the effects seem to be ebbing away now, but I'm depleted, as if I've been on a long, active travel trip. Inside my own head.

None of this excuses me from making a bad choice with the blurry love essay. But I wish that choice hadn't been part of the tapestry.

Out in the world:

First two columns of Victorian Spam: one and two.

I reviewed Mira T. Lee's Everything Here Is Beautiful for the Masters Review. I did not expect to like this book but I did.

I reviewed Anca L. Szilágyi's Daughters of the Air for Locus. It's in the print issue for January, and I don't know if it'll show up in the online issue eventually. I hope it does; it's a good review (I think) for an unusual book.

What amounts to a hot take on an article in the Guardian about depression. My rebuttal on Medium. It cost me a Facebook friend and a reasonable amount of anguish to make this argument, but I'm not sorry. Friends who have struggled with the same issues chimed in to thank me.

*More complex truth: I lust to be published by this press even though the style of writing they publish hasn't got much in common with what I write. I sent them the manuscript on a prayer more than a belief, so the rejection was not a surprise (one of those cases where "it's not right for us" is the whole truth), and they said nice things about the writing, but it still hurt. 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Spinning Wheels/Plates

First on the agenda: I am starting a column at Occulum under the pseudonym Valkyrie 13. It's called Victorian Spam, and it will appear every Tuesday under "Ragtag" at Occulum.net. If you follow Occulum on Twitter you'll get notifications about the column every time (I think).

To tell you more would spoil the fun. Except: if you run a small press and you like what I'm doing there, get in touch with me.

Second: I'm losing track of, among my published/accepted items, what I've promoted on this blog, what I've promoted in my newsletter, what I've shared on Facebook, and what hasn't gone out into the world yet. This is a terrific problem to have, though the inherent joy there makes it no less frustrating. I'm including a list of links at the bottom of this post in case you missed anything recently, but I'm not specifically jockeying for you to read any of them. A thing you should definitely do if you're interested in all things me is subscribe to my newsletter.

Third: In truth, all the writing problems I'm having lately are good problems to have. I'm having simult sub problems, which means more than one market wants my work instead of no one wanting it. This is good in the abstract but awkward in fact. I'm having problems finding time to read everything I want to review and keeping straight for whom I'm writing reviews and from whom I've requested ARCs. This is terrific but stressful.

Fourth: I finished two long essays, made major progress on a third, and wrote easily half a dozen short essays/book reviews across the end of December. It was such a productive period that I'm feeling disappointed I haven't gotten much done yet in January. I have interviews to prepare, but I'm stuck feeling unready. There's so much planning taking place for the year ahead that I can't seem to actually do. Y'know?

Fifth: At some point I'll stop spinning my wheels like this and actually have something to say about writing, so stick around. XOXO

Out in the world:

An interview with ME on the Collagist. First time I've ever been interviewed as a writer. I had fun. I'm sorry I didn't like The Sellout.

Listish essay on the art of bad men, "Famous Men I Have Been Asked to Forgive (Abridged)," on the Offing. The editors are some large percentage responsible for what's in this piece, because what I submitted had not a single word in common with what was published. Originally, it was just about Woody Allen and was more esoteric. I rewrote it inspired by #metoo. I am hoping to do something else with what I submitted, but in the meantime this was very satisfying to write and to see in print.

Sort-of review, sort-of CNF exploration of Claudia F. Savage's Bruising Continents on Anomaly. As I write therein, I am bad at understanding and/or reviewing poetry. The review was commissioned so I couldn't bring myself to say no. When I came up with this and sent it to the editor I was worried she would be mad at me, but I was also a little panicky about what I'd do if she asked me to rewrite it into a straight review. This book was so deeply sensate that I couldn't think of how I'd talk about it in reasonable terms. Thank heavens, she liked it.

Straightforward review of Malu Halasa's Mother of All Pigs at the Los Angeles Review. Really recommend this book, even though it's hard going sometimes.

Review of my friend Claire's wonderful memoir, Imprint, at the Wisdom Daily. They asked me to write for them again, which is flattering, but I have no idea what to send them.

A six-word story on Medium. The process of finding markets for six-word stories is surprisingly difficult, so after an initial 160-day rejection, I just posted it myself.

"YA as an Impediment to Reading" on Medium. I thought this one had legs for the internet, and that most of the readers in the world would want to argue with me about it, but so far, few takers. I sent it to a few places that publish articles about education, and in reply I heard either that it was too focused on college or too focused on high school, so I threw up my hands and out it went on Medium.

Books I Hate interview with duncan b. barlow. This may be my favorite of the series so far, although one I'm preparing at the moment mentions Over the Top.


Reviews of Tomb Song, Nothing Good Can Come from This, Daughters of the Air, Animals Eat Each Other, Everything Here is Beautiful, and I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. "The American Way of Work" (CNF) and "The First Snow" (fiction). Medium post about my (former) eating disorder. Many more Victorian Spam columns. Books I Hate(s) with an editor and two writers. Nervous collapse?

Monday, January 1, 2018

Resolute, 2017 Edition

Every year, I post last year's New Year's resolutions with a short analysis of how well I think I succeeded at them, and then I post this year's. So, here are last year's (in greater detail here):

1. Stay calm. A draw, I think. My equanimity grows with each passing year, and I perceive this as a less-passionate and totally preferable way to live. But I lost my cool a couple of times this year, and I lost my temper in private. I will say that the emotional aspects of my PMS worsened really badly in 2017 (like, from 2 out of 10 to 8 out of 10), and I wish I could figure out how to mitigate that.

2. Get off Facebook. No, really, I mean it. Fail. I'm going to stop making this resolution. Every time I really step away from Facebook, my emotional health improves measurably, but I miss important events in my friends' lives and my self-promotion falters. The friends and the promotion matter too much to me right now to make that trade.

3. Stay a healthy distance from smug. Success. Visibly walking the middle politically proved impossible this year, so I tried instead to keep my mouth shut to avoid hurting others. This isn't everyone's best solution, but it is mine.

4. Go toward the crazy, weird, awesome, instinctual. Big success. All of my happiest results personally and professionally came from this choice.

I've already meditated on what 2017 was like for me as a writer. 2018 will mark my seventh year keeping this blog. I don't know how that happened. I look back and all those little bits have added up to something.

I think that's the shape of a life, too.

For the last couple of years, I've had a difficult time coming up with resolutions, but man, this year's were easy.

1. Hustle. Keep up the momentum I've built as a writer in 2017. Working a little bit all the time will be better for me, better for making things happen continuously on the long line between words on the page and publication. I've begun rolling down the hill and I don't want to swerve off into one of those runaway truck ramps and come to a halt in a flurry of sand and ignominy. (Even though I've always wanted to, less metaphorically, swerve off into one of those runaway truck ramps in my car, just to see what would happen.)

2. Keep to my own rhythms. After we got back from the UK I took on the habit for a week or so of two sleeps. I went to bed at a laughable hour, like 7:30, and then woke up in the wee hours and read or wrote for a few hours, and then went back to sleep until 7 or 8. It was great. I felt well-rested, the line between sleeping and waking wasn't as intimidating as it usually is, and I got a lot done. But once the jet lag wore off, and I had to get up for work at 6 again, it wasn't feasible anymore.

I sleep a lot on the weekends, especially during the day. I used to find this pathetic, lazy, and generally an excuse to beat myself up. But now I realize that I function better (I'm more creative, friendly, relaxed, focused) when I nap at some point during the day. I am just one of those people who needs more sleep. Instead of fighting this or insisting that it makes me a sucky person, how nice if I could accept it, and use it to run my life better. There's all kinds of stuff in my life like this, rhythms of my own preference that make me better when I keep to them.

3. Fight fear. I've gotten pretty good at courage in the face of anxiety over the last few years, especially since the first Ojai workshop. I don't find myself victim to fear too often, but I do still feel it in my body on a regular basis, and that is something I can battle against. There's no reason to be afraid of asking for what I want or need, whether it's publication or more ice in my tea.

4. Plan better on a small scale. Planning down to the minute doesn't work for me. Even planning down to the hour is too granular. I get resentful and self-sabotage and nothing whatsoever gets done. But leaving things wide open (so I feel free, instead of feeling trapped) overwhelms me and makes me waste the whole day. It's a fiddly balance to strike and I think, through trial and error, I've finally gotten the process down:
  1. Decide what to do in the morning and what to do in the afternoon [on non-work days]. General goals for four-hour blocks seem right. E.g. "read particular book" in the morning and "write x, y, and z pitches" in the afternoon. 
  2. Keep the goals small, even underwhelming. 
  3. If you feel good/productive, keep going, and accomplish something unexpected (e.g. "do laundry") (because there's always laundry). 
  4. If you fail, do not do not do not yell at self. 
The last step is the most important, because yelling at myself wrecks the entire thing. I get so caught up in how much I suck that I can't keep my plans for the next block of time and I just play solitaire and eat cheese. Which makes me feel like I suck. Which takes me into the next block of time.

I'm recording this not just because I hope it helps you, but also because I need to see this strategy put down in detail in a place I can refer to all year to make myself stick to it.

5. Give myself credit for hard work. These resolutions are much nicer to myself than in past years. It's almost as if I'm learning not to be so hard on myself. Almost as if that had been the primary focus of my therapy since around 2015. Hm.

Anyway, this resolution has to do with not chalking my successes entirely up to luck, or circumstances outside my control. Luck is an integral part of success, as is privilege and talent and other things not determined by one's own will or mettle. But I believe hard work is more than half of success, and possibly a much greater proportion of greater successes. People have said about Marilyn Monroe and Tom Cruise (whatever you think of him) - and probably a number of other exceptionally famous people about whom I haven't specifically read this - that yeah, they had It, something intangible and predestined, but they also worked harder than the reporting person had ever seen anyone work. That always made me feel better about how stardom happens. Hard fucking work.

So yeah. I worked hard in 2017. Luck and privilege and talent had plenty to do with the visible results, but I think hard work had more to do with it. If you know the right people and catch the right wave of the zeitgeist, you can get mediocre books published, but they'll always be mediocre. Good books come from hard work.

6. Let go, let go, let go. A couple of weeks ago, I opened a cabinet at work and found that the computer supplies I had carefully curated (because we sometimes need oddball peripherals, and I keep them in stock so I don't have to send to China for them in a rush), some of which I had been storing in order to bring a batch to the recycling center so as not to dump rare earth metals into the landfill, had all been discarded. Poof. Gone. I almost cried. My boss has been in a slash-n-burn mood lately as we prepare to expand our office, so I understood why this happened, but I was still pretty upset that she had asked someone else - someone who hadn't been in charge of the computer supplies - to clean them out.

Later I remembered that I am winding up my employment here, moving down to two days a week and then to one by spring, and there's no reason I should be so personally upset. Even though I worked hard on this curation, it's not really up to me, nor is it a credit or deficit on my character, what this office does with its supplies. Let go, Kat. This isn't yours anymore.

It's hard. I worked hard on that cabinet, little things here and there, for two years.

7. Take better care of my body and my home. Why don't I brush and floss every night? I don't know. It's not because of the time it takes, and it's not because I don't like flossing. Why don't I go for a half-hour walk after dinner? I don't know. Because I don't remember to. Why don't I put my clothes away at night instead of tossing them over chairs and on the floor? I don't know. Doing these things right takes marginally more time than not doing them at all, and forming good habits will help me live longer and prosper more. So this year I will try to form good habits on little crap like this.

8. Avoid travel. I mean, sort of. Late 2017 had so much travel in it that right now I'd be happy to not travel again until 2019, but I'm sure that'll wear off by spring and I'll return to well-I-suppose instead of no-way-no-how.

Happy New Year, readers and friends. I was happy to know you this year. Stick around and stay strong for 2018.