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.