Sometimes a phrase will come into my brain and stay there for months until I let it become part of a story or poem. An example, “There’s something I wanted to tell you” has been floating around in my head for weeks. If it becomes a story or poem and gets out into the world, I’ll post it here. For the many years that I led writing workshops at the Brooklyn Veterans Center, I always started with a phrase or a few words – a loose writing prompt that sometimes worked for everyone in the group, sometimes not but nearly always led to very different stories/poems – some so visceral and vivid that I still remember them even when I can’t really remember the people who wrote them. Though I don’t miss the unreliable subway commute there and back again or the bureaucracy surrounding that weekly gathering, I do miss the stories and my part in helping to spark those stories. I miss the reading of those stories and the sharing of our words in that safe space. As the news comes through of the closing of Café Loup – a restaurant where I never ate but where I also spent many hours after MFA workshops with my classmates discussing everything from the Ramones to line-breaks, I am reminded about the lack of community in NYC – how difficult it is to find and maintain any group (reading, writing, hiking) and how often those groups fall apart because we are all competitive and we all work too much. And of course people move away from NYC or have babies or get book deals or stop going out even for coffee. Life is hard. Writing is hard. Fitting writing into life is incredibly hard. My writing these days is less about talking with other writers and more about trying to please book review editors or trying to figure out just what it was I was trying to say in a particular section of my dissertation. Often I just end up streaming noir crime series or reading other people’s books (some good, some wonderful, some dull or really badly written). I often wonder just what it is that makes some people have the courage to send out a manuscript into the world. When I read manuscripts (and I read a LOT of them), I’m constantly struck both by the brilliance of some writers and the laziness of others. Is it so difficult to use spellcheck? Or to read sentences aloud so they sound halfway decent? I also wonder why I see so many more manuscripts from men than women. After all, my MFA classes were mostly women (or do I just remember them that way?). And yet there seems to be this massive group of men writing novels and stories and sending them out into the world. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Some of these manuscripts are the best I’ve read. But many, many are not. Often I prefer to read “blind” so I don’t know who/what/where the writer is – just let the words speak for themselves. But that’s not how the world works, not really. We all come to things (art, work, life) with preconceptions – writing is no different. Mostly people don’t work hard enough on their own art before they send it out. But sometimes they get it right and that makes all the reading worthwhile. #WRITEON
As the summer is more than half-way over I think it’s about time to “take stock” of what I’ve accomplished so far in my writing life. I did two feature interviews for The Brooklyn Rail: one with Viv Albertine and one with Michelle Tea. I wrote and submitted three out of 4 assigned reviews for the Rail (more on that when they run). The 4th will be submitted in the next week or so – it’s a tough one. The reviews I write for BR are nearly all a combination of visceral response shaped with sharp critical thought. I read books for BR the way I workshopped pieces in my MFA or the way I read manuscripts for Black Lawrence or my various consultancy gigs. Recently I started writing reviews for Publishers Weekly. The books are mostly interesting memoirs or biographies but the reviews are short with no byline. I approach reviews for PW with the same rigor but excise the emotional response. I’ve also started writing more reviews for academic journals – these are good for the CV but don’t pay & are generally more work. That said, there are some interesting books on the list and I’ll post that info once the reviews are out (likely several months). I also took a vacation this summer – not something I usually do. I spent several days in Switzerland traveling with my mom. She’s showing little/no signs of aging (which can be a bit intimidating). It was a deeply powerful experience traveling with her in her home country, hearing stories about her childhood, and the many years that she and my late great dad spent leading hiking groups through the Alps. I wish I had half the courage she’s got. I brought a journal along but found it difficult to write while I was there. I just have some notes in my travel diary & a few lines on my phone. I did dream a perfect opening for a story but woke up to a dark room on the side of a mountain with no pen or notebook nearby. Sometimes maybe writing is just about living life – although my brain is constantly shaping stories, narratives, taking notes, it’s good to just listen, hike, breathe, live. Since I got back I’ve been doing the rounds of various doctors, having various tests, and being forced to think about my brain as something somehow separate from me: an organ that can break down or experience trauma just like any other part of my body. But it’s also the place where my stories live, where every character who’s yammered away at me, every rhythmic phrase, every critical unpacking of a line/paragraph/manuscript comes from. I don’t understand the process – although the EEG certainly shook up something – but somehow within the meat and fluid of the brain words and stories are formed; stories that become fingers typing on a keyboard or are destined to simply live briefly and dissipate in the distraction of everyday life. In waiting rooms the past few weeks, I’ve seen people in various states of disrepair – missing limbs, massive scars, and the frail and forgetful and confused. I met a seven year old boy who was waiting for an MRI (he asked about my tattoos) and a 90 year old woman who was waiting to hear whether or not she’s going blind (she told me about her latest European cruise, “the colors!!”). And while I continue to struggle with this strange organ that is my brain, I value every moment that I have to read and write or simply sit in a quiet apartment watching French Noir while my cat studiously ignores me. The stories will become words on a page – some of them, and others will simply live their brief lives, shift and change, maybe become poems, maybe spark and die. The summer will spin out into a series of days spent at the day job or the beach, walking, sleeping, reading, boxing, swimming, with friends, or just sitting quietly with a pen and notebook trying to shape words from the sparking electricity in my sometimes faulty brain into stories or essays or book reviews or, god forbid, another dissertation chapter. One note I wrote to myself in some random room in yet another mountain valley: “To walk is to think is to write.” #WriteOn
As this academic year comes to a close I’m doing my usual taking stock: of what got done, of what did not, of what was good & what was not. I’ve finally achieved “ABD” status (All But Dissertation) which means I can now get on with the real work of writing my dissertation. That’s in my “spare time” along with continuing to write book reviews (mostly for The Brooklyn Rail), the occasional review for academic journals, and two upcoming feature interviews. This doesn’t leave much time for “real” writing…this year is also the first time in 8 years that I won’t be putting out a chapbook of my “poem-a-day” work. Disappointing but projects end and that one needed to. So how do I find the time to write – really write – in the midst of all this other writing? Some people get up early before work to write but that’s the time I spend at the gym. Others write during lunch hours, after work, or on weekends but right now, that time is all for research for the dissertation, reading things I get paid to read, writing things I get paid to write, and spending time with other humans. Why is that that thing, that writing thing that is so central to who I am always seem to get shoved to last priority? Maybe I should schedule writing time the way I schedule time to do research, to hike, to swim in the ocean, to go to the movies, to get the gym, make it into a habit – a practice as essential as walking or sleeping or morning coffee. Meanwhile, I read and write about other people’s books and research and write about dissertation things and think about how nice it would be to spend some time in a little room somewhere just writing and writing and writing about anything I want to for as long as I want to.
This year started with a week at the ArtSmith residency on Orcas Island. I spent the week writing, reading, thinking about writing, talking about writing, walking in the rain (and the not-rain), and learning more about the work of the other fellows at the residency. It was surprisingly difficult for me to focus on my writing – maybe because I’m so used to having to write in the midst of NYC and all that quiet was daunting. Or maybe it’s because I was forced to confront the intense loss I feel whenever I return “home” to the PNW; even more so as January was one year since my father died. Much of my fiction contains elements of the PNW and its trees, air, water, and particular shades of darkness (and light) hold sway in my imagination in ways other places I’ve lived never will. Some of my work draws from my father’s stories, his family, the spaces and places he lived and it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to separate my nostalgia/longing for the PNW from my grief – both for my father and, always, for my brother whose death in the 1990s was part of the impetus of my family moving away from all those rain-dark days. With the recent death of Ursula K. Le Guin, I’ve been thinking more about her work – how much it meant to me in my earliest reading years and how I continue to come back to her words throughout my adult life. On a visit to Orcas Island Pottery I was struck by how much that place/space seemed to come out of one of Le Guin’s story-worlds. There’s a depth of beauty in her work that I found reflected on the island. How this week of trees and rain and quiet conversation will bleed into my writing this year will prove interesting and, hopefully, fruitful. I’m sending out an odd little short story I wrote one afternoon sitting in the library at ArtSmith’s Kangaroo House. I have no idea if it will find a home but sending it out into the world is a part of a promise I made to myself in January – to write more stories and to risk the sharing of those stories again. It is important to remember Le Guin’s words: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”
It’s that time of year when everyone is publishing “best-of” and “top ten” and so on. For once I’m not either grading or writing final papers [oh…hello Dissertation] but I am “taking stock” a bit. So what have I accomplished, written, read, listened to, and seen this past year? January started with the death of my beloved dad (Jan. 12) and my beloved uncle (Jan. 5) and that’s all I’ll say about that. Then there was the whole #NotMyPresident thing. I got angry. I marched. again. I swore at the TV. again. But still, Trump remains. In February I adopted a large black cat variously known as Mr. Remy, Mr. Kitty, and El Poco Diablo. As for accomplishments: I finished my PhD comp exams [one in FA16 and two in SP17]. I continued as Senior Fiction Editor at Black Lawrence Press where I read a couple hundred manuscripts and curated, edited & produced BLP’s weekly newsletter Sapling (52 issues). I read a lot of books & wrote several reviews for The Brooklyn Rail. I wrote a draft dissertation proposal, applied, and was accepted into the first cohort of the Early Career Workshop at the Center for Women’s History at the New York Historical Society. I applied for and was granted a fellowship to attend ArtSmith – a one week artist’s retreat on Orcas Island. I wrote another novel draft (60K words) for 2017 NanoWriMo. I published another chapbook w/Mary Ellen Sanger (maybe our last). I went back to the gym, did my PT, and went from barely being able to walk across the street in August to doing 7 “moderately strenuous” hikes this past fall. I met my GoodReads 2017 Reading Challenge goal of reading one hundred books (not counting manuscripts). I went to a few live shows/concerts. I also watched way too much Netflix & Amazon Prime & went to a ton of movies. Top 10-20 out of all that: sound: Nick Cave at the Beacon. NY Philharmonic Beethoven’s 9th. visual: City of Ghosts (dir. Matthew Heineman), Kedi (dir. Ceyda Torun), Byzantium (dir. Neil Jordan – Netflix), The Kettering Incident (Netflix), and of course Twin Peaks: the Return & Stranger Things. text: The Power/Naomi Alderman, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me/Sherman Alexie, Hunger/Roxanne Gay, Wait Till You See Me Dance/Deb Olin Unferth, Blaris Moore/Medbh McGuckian, Ph: a novel/Nancy Lord, An Unkindness of Magicians/Kat Howard, The Folly of Loving Life/Monica Drake & a re-read of Simone de Beauvoir. And so goes another year. Here’s hoping 2018 brings us a better President and a better world.