I’m still recovering from this year’s AWP Conference – too many people/books/bright lights. This year AWP was in Portland, Oregon (a/k/a land of my ancestors or at least great & grandparents) which meant I got to see some REAL trees, some lovely rain, and drink the world’s finest coffee. I tried Alaska Airlines again (why??) and discovered that even with the fancy seats (like Delta Comfort only w/out the comfort part), there were no back of the seat TVs (they do rent “devices” for $10). And so, I spent my flight doing what I used to do on airplanes – reading. It was a lovely way to spend all those hours in the sky and I got a lot of work done. A Portland-based friend picked me up at the airport (apparently something people do outside of NYC) and we spent the day drinking coffee and doing other Portland-type things. I then checked in to the BLP house and waited for the rest of the BLP team to arrive. I sat on a couch larger than my apartment & watched Ricky Gervais play a compassionate human in “Afterlife.” It was very good but not as good as the book I read on the plane. I spent most of my AWP at the BLP table at the Book Fair. I don’t much like crowds & staying behind a table selling books works for me at AWP. I met lots of nice people – teachers/writers/editors/fans of words – and sold some books. At some point I had a short walk & nice lunch with some ArtSmith people & learned that a writer whose manuscript I consulted on (I do this type of editorial work in my “spare” time) just landed a big time agent – well-deserved! It’s a powerful book. Overall the AWP experience was worth it despite the too-many people, the jet lag, the ridiculous flights, etc. etc. There were many good conversations about writing & living & reading & how we all struggle to find time/space/energy to be writers in a world that often doesn’t seem to notice or care or agree that what we do is important. As I start off this spring’s piles of work, I feel equally energized to write and frustrated that I don’t have more time to write the things I want to write instead of the things I have to write. #dissertationVSnovel…
Here it is February & I haven’t yet posted my Happy New Year & all that post…I’m not going to do the whole “best books/movies/moments” of 2018 thing but I did take a quick look at my 2018 Goodreads. My reading goal was 200 books. I read 133 which is 30 more than 2017. Granted this count doesn’t include the hundreds of manuscripts I read nor does it include extensive reading/research I did in 2018 for my dissertation, for book reviews & for chapters I wrote for an encyclopedia project. My Goodreads reading stats are interesting to me: those 133 books equal 40961 pages with most books ranked 3 out of 5 stars. 5 star books include Shelley Jackson’s “Riddance,” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “What Happened,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,” Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Robert Levy’s “The Glittering World,” & a few more. My most-read author of 2018 was a close tie between Kathy Acker (for my dissertation) & Ursula K. Le Guin. I read a lot of gender/feminist theory and a lot of fantasy/Sci-Fi (a break from all that theory). I also reviewed a LOT of books for various publications including The Brooklyn Rail & Publisher’s Weekly. For me, reading books as a reviewer is a different process from both academic reading & reading for pleasure. I use a different critical lens when I’m reading a novel (or memoir) for review than say, when I’m reading an academic text. Often it’s hard to shut off the critical lens when I’m reading for pleasure so I generally try to read books that are well written (current favorites are Greenwood & McKillip). In any case, I did read a lot in 2018 but in taking stock, I realize how little “creative” writing I did on a regular basis – sure I went to a one-week residency in Jan 2018 & did a blast of fiction writing during NaNoWriMo & contributed to an book-art project & an anthology (more on those later) but I’ve lost my regular practice of writing just to write & that’s something I want to change this year somehow between working full-time & part-time & writing a dissertation & having a life. Somehow.
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.
In her stunningly written memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes, “Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be. … Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” I have not written much since my father died in January. A few book reviews, a few awkward poems, some academic essays, one very long comp exam/capstone paper. But blog entries, journal entries, and fiction have become not so much impossible but of no interest.
I’m currently in the topic/proposal/prospectus phase of a PhD dissertation. When I attempt to concentrate on this necessary work, my brain slips away, suggests TV, perhaps a walk, a dinner with a friend, Facebook. I have always been someone who makes lists, creates outlines, weekly (daily) goals, keeps working steadily. It’s how I hike, it’s how I walk, it’s how I balance a full-time job, a part-time job, have completed four Master’s degrees and am nearly ABD. I work. Every day. I write. Every day. But now, my writing is “unengaged.” This summer I took two non-credit undergrad online courses to kick my brain back into gear. I just got an A-. On an essay on “to the lighthouse.” In an undergraduate course. I could blame the rigidness of the instructor’s views on Woolf (a valid complaint). I could blame a lack of time. I could blame a lack of agreement with the instructor’s view on Woolf. But really, it’s grief.
When I think about the shape of my grief, it seems a sort of unfathomably dark space, a kind of black hole inside me. Some years back I took a writing workshop led by a particularly brilliant writer; he suggested in order to really write, we had to “go deep,” to find that “pit in your gut where bad things hide” and write from there. And so I did, I have, it’s where I go when I write fiction, when I write poems, when I write personal essays. I don’t look away but instead straight at the toughest places, those places I do not want to go. As someone who suffers from PTSD, this is not easy work; I doubt it’s easy work for any writer. But now, when I try to go there, to really write, there’s a sort of “slipping away,” a feeling of avoidance.
So how to write around or through? I’ve written grief before: many of my poems, essays, fictions focuses on my brother’s violent death and all that came after. But this is different. This feels different. When I was recently assigned to review Sherman Alexie’s new book, a memoir that is more a eulogy for his mother than “traditional memoir,” I thought maybe, this is a way through. Instead, I am blocked. I never have “writer’s block” and I don’t understand it. Life is too short to be blocked. Maybe this lack of writer’s block means I’m not a very good writer; maybe, like those women who take too long in the bathroom (something I’ve never understood) I’m missing something. But I don’t think so. I think when people say they have “writer’s block” it’s generally because they’re afraid: afraid of the pain of going deep, afraid of risking writing something that isn’t what or how they wanted to write. But that’s all cowardice, it’s all bullshit. I will write this review. It’s unthinkable to me to not do so. And I will write my dissertation: topic, proposal, prospectus, and every damn page of it until I’m done. And I will go to ArtSmith in January on Orcas Island and use that fellowship to write stories again. Always. Because that’s what it means to be a writer: to push into those dark space, where it hurts, where the truth hides; and my father would expect nothing less.