Of writing & islands; grief & Le Guin

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.”

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of year’s end & ‘best-ofs’

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.

on grief and writing

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.