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.
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.
This morning I opened my email to a notice from the DOE that my grad student loans, ALL of them, are going into repayment in TWO WEEKS. So instead of editing that past due book review on my break at the Day Job, I spent my time requesting the 17 different pieces of paper needed to remind the DOE that I am still enrolled in a University graduate program & still in a state of deferment. Said book review will somehow get written tonight and then on to the next one. Book reviews are an interesting form of writing. I have a good, kind editor who generally allows me to say what I want to say within the assigned word count. I find this short form of writing to be particularly helpful in reminding me how to write succinctly, critically, and with a degree of passion not generally allowed in my more “academic” work. I also get to (mostly) write about books I want to write about. I don’t end up loving all of them but when I don’t love a book, the review is also a great exercise in figuring out why: is it a craft issue? language choices? poorly executed themes? or do I just disagree with what’s being said? It’s also really nice to get paid for writing. Yesterday I walked to my bank and deposited THREE checks for reviews I’ve written. Small amounts of money in NYC terms but still, getting PAID for writing in a world that does not like to pay writers. And this leads me to what I’m calling the “dissertation prospectus blues.” I’m spending this semester of grad school supposedly putting together a formal prospectus (or proposal) for my dissertation. I’ve written one already – a sort of quick pass with an extended bibliography. It was good enough to get me accepted into the “Early Career (writing) Workshop” at The Center for Women’s History @ the New York Historical Society but I don’t even know if I want to stick with my topic (loosely based around female/gender identity, punk rock, Kathy Acker, and the EV in the 1980s/1990s). Can I really do a dissertation on women in punk? Should I? And of course, in tandem with these dissertation prospectus blues are my always ambivalent feelings at the end of another summer. A summer wherein I wrote very little beyond book reviews. A summer where I spent more time at a desk than in the ocean. A summer where I questioned every day this idea of being a writer, of the worth of writing, of whether or not I should finish my Ph.D. and what it would mean if I didn’t. This weekend I’ll spend with friends, seeking the sun, and somehow, finishing at least one book review. Because that is writing I can do right now & it’s writing that will eventually bring in some money, unlike the dissertation or the Ph.D. which seems only to create more debt & get in the way of the REAL writing I want to do.
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.