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.
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.
Somehow it’s already October & as I watch deadlines fly by somewhat akin to the leaves blowing off trees, I realize it’s been weeks (months?) since I’ve written a blog post. I could blame the volume of reading I have to do for Grad School “comps” or the hundred manuscripts I have to read or the heavier workload at my “day job” this semester, but really, it’s this “non-writing” thing that’s been happening since August. I’ve gone from writing a “poem-a-day” to maybe one every couple of weeks. I haven’t written a word of fiction since August & the only non-fiction I’m writing is of the academic variety: dry and focused on exposition and argument, not image/character/plot/rhythm. For a while in September, I was creating “erasure” poems from various texts and that was fun but it didn’t stimulate my writing the way I’d hoped it would. Much of my energy these days is focused on keeping up with the workload(s) and getting my body moving again post-surgery. I’ve done a couple of hikes & I’m walking to/from work again most days (about 1.5 miles each way). A walk that can be both freeing and irritating (cars blasting through crosswalks, bicycles on sidewalks/blocking crosswalks/ignoring red lights, tourists, people glued to phones). My commute takes me from the West Village to the East Village and this time of year, everything is decorated for Halloween except the banks & that hideous IBM tower in the midst of Astor Place. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday & this year is no exception. I’ll be celebrating in various ways: a séance at the Merchant’s House Museum, two episodes of Radio Theatre NYC’s HP Lovecraft Festival, and maybe a spooky movie or two. I may even go see The Damned. Every few years I attend the Village Halloween Parade but last year it was such a crowded mess, I’ll likely skip it. There’s something about the season that brings on a certain post-Goth nostalgic-melancholy that is both uncomfortable and oddly pleasurable. I miss dressing up. I miss going to see “scary” bands with my scary Goth friends. But seeing the new Clash-inspired film London Town last night I was reminded of just how dirty, cold, and brutal London was under Thatcher. I lived there at the height of the London Goth scene and while it was a formative year for my very young self & rife with positive new experiences (Joyce’s Ulysses, punk rock/Goth boyfriends, Sisters of Mercy/Virgin Prunes/Nick Cave-Bad Seeds/Neubaten) I also have a strong memory of ALWAYS being cold. Freezing in fact. London was damp and everywhere I lived suffered from poor heating and terrible water pressure (when there was running water). It’s not much different in NYC. Although I have a door that locks, a toilet that (mostly) flushes & a shower that (nearly always) has hot water, and at least an expectation of heat at home and work, I’m still cold. And maybe that’s a lesson I learned all those years ago living in my own version of Halloween Town, all the beautiful words & books & all the loud music in the world won’t keep me warm. Sometimes writing eases that deep, dark cold inside but sometimes it serves only to open another door into that well of nostalgia and melancholy from which much bad poetry emanates. Still, I’ll celebrate the best holiday of the year & maybe I’ll even write a line or two in celebration.
You cannot fold a flood*
any more than find words for
my sorrow is feral
Every floorboard holds
your imprint, every corner.
Shadows move, dark, pace
midnight, 4am, dawn
you, you and you, again.
[some words for Mina]
[title and first line from a poem by Nick Flynn.]