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.]
This year’s AWP Conference was in L.A. (or Hell-LA as I used to call it). I haven’t been to LA in some years and I’m decidedly less gainfully employed (yet much more educated) than I was then. I don’t like LA despite the good people I know who live there). I don’t like a city where I can’t walk to/from everything I need. I don’t like a city without significant public transit. I don’t like a city with no heart/no center – I always feel like “there’s no there there” when I’m in LA. This trip was spent mainly behind a table selling books, talking about books, and hearing about books at the Black Lawrence Press booth. While it’s always inspiring to see so many people (14,000 ?) who love books, AWP is always an endurance test. Because of my various limitations, my post-accident AWP experiences are definitely anxiety-driven. I opt to sit behind a table at the Book Fair not only because I feel it’s the best use of my talents on BLP’s behalf but also because it feels relatively safe. Once I’m out there walking around the Book Fair, the noise, the bright lights, the volume of information, the general sensory overload can prove too much for my already-challenged brain. In coping with PTSD on a daily basis, there are certain triggers: lights, noise, crowds. But sitting behind a table, I feel at ease and fully able to talk about and sell books. I feel useful. And that’s incredibly important to me right now – feeling useful. One of the panels at AWP this year focused on “Imposter Syndrome” – while I didn’t attend the panel, I did find myself considering whether or not I feel like an “imposter” when I’m surrounded by writers. I don’t have the same kind of self-confidence I had when I was last in LA – I’m not running a successful Music PR firm nor do I have an easily definable “career.” I felt a twinge of “imposter-itis” when I gave a copy of my latest poetry chapbook (w/Mary Ellen Sanger) to a favorite poet of mine – she’s published with more than one reputable press, I’m not. I also felt the same “imposter-itis” when meeting with former colleagues (now friends) in LA: am I still the punk rocker they knew or am I just another pseudo-punk rock/academic? I’ve been thinking about “punk rock” a lot – both in connection with a current fiction project and for a large research project for my Ph.D. focused on the structuring of female image in punk rock. Leaving the novel aside for now, or this paper, I’ve had to read volumes of academic work on punk, women in rock, and pop culture. Most of it either misses the point (written by outsiders) or lacks academic rigor (written by insiders). I’m struggling with definitions of “punk rock” – what do people mean when they use the term and what do I mean? Questions I never would have asked “back in the day” when I helmed my own PR firm and proudly called myself “Punk Rock Bitch.” Am I still punk rock now? Can one be punk rock without the outward trappings? Can one be a writer without a book out? Can one be a poet if one isn’t published on a major press? What makes an “imposter” (or to use the old punk rock term “a poser/poseur”)? And why does any of this matter when there are books to read, words to write, and LOUD guitars?
Another December has come and gone and with it the anxieties and joys of travel, family, holiday traditions, and of course the annual (nightly?) “taking stock of my life” that I’m prone to. I finished up another semester of grad school with two final papers – one on the importance of Irish/Irish-American women in the American Labor movement and one on the “eviction” photographs of Robert French (19th C. Irish photographer). I celebrated the end of the semester by going to see the new Star Wars movie – Han Solo was killed which pretty much ends that story for me. I then packed up and headed for Northern Arizona to spend a week with my parents and other assorted family. The N.AZ Unitarians put on a good Solstice celebration as well as a good service on the 24th. My mom sang in the choir on the 24th and it was great to see her up there singing and to see how full of energy she is after a year-long fight against Cancer. It snowed on Christmas Day which was made that much nicer as I didn’t have to commute in NYC through the resultant slush. While in AZ I read a lot, watched some football with my dad, walked some, and wrote less. Back in NYC for a few days, I divested myself of several pounds of books and paper, read more books and caught up with friends. On Jan 2nd, I headed out to Washington State to attend the ArtSmith Residency on Orcas Island. I hadn’t been to the San Juan Islands since I was a kid but had vivid memories of that gorgeous ferry ride from Anacortes. A high school friend picked me up at the airport and I was soon on the ferry. I met fellow residency attendee – Alaskan writer Nancy Lord at the ferry station – a great writer and a true pleasure to spend time with. After a gorgeous (albeit very grey) ferry ride, we arrived on Orcas Island. I was given a HUGE room (by NYC standards) and spent the week enjoying the space, reading, getting to know my fellow residents, and most importantly, writing. The mornings I spent drinking (too much) coffee and staring at the Salish Sea and the mountains will stay with me for a long, long time. I spent one afternoon and night in Seattle catching up with old friends and walking around the Market and its environs. Seattle was my first “big” city, it’s the place I was born, and the place I first discovered much of the music and literature and lifestyle that is integral to who I am. It no longer feels like “home” but it does feel like a place I could live. While deep in the woods (or out on the beach) on Orcas, I felt the strong pull of “home” – the “right” ocean, a more sane pace of life, a space to think and write and breathe.
While in Seattle, we got the news of the death of David Bowie. Others have written much and more eloquently than I could of the importance of Bowie in shaping taste, personal identity, and self-expression. I’m glad I heard the news while I was with a long-time friend in Seattle. NYC is full of good, sensitive, creative humans but I didn’t spend my childhood here and it will never really be “home” for me. Now that news has come out that CD Wright and Alan Rickman have both died of Cancer and of course remembering the huge presence that was John Trudell, I have to wonder if I wasn’t better off on that island, cut off from news of the wide world and instead studying trees, and tiny shells, birds and patterns of words. Perhaps life would be better away from the brutal stress of life in NYC, and away from the huge sadness of the world at large. NYC can be a beautiful and inspiring place to live but just two weeks away is enough to change my perspective. Whether or not I finish the work I started and edited at ArtSmith, I hope to hold onto that changed perspective as I move into another academic year, another work year, and another year of living. I am thankful for what I have, for those who are still with us, and for the gifts of those who are gone.
It’s Day 11 of NaNoWriMo and although I’m in the midst of one of the busiest times at my day job and in my semester, I’ve still managed to crank out over 13,000 words so far. What my main character is up to I’m still not sure but I’ll let her do what she wants and hope it all turns out. Currently there are two main story lines going: some formative event(s) from the main character’s past and what is apparently either a story about a woman going slowly mad or more likely, some kind of haunting (?). Also, yellow roses appear to be a big problem for her. This is the first time in a while that I’ve written with a female protagonist throughout. It feels odd but as she’s different from me, it’s interesting to find out how she feels/thinks/acts. As to the writing process itself, it’s very difficult (impossible?) for me to find periods of concentrated writing so, instead, I’ve been writing whenever and wherever I can. I just wrote 300 words on my lunch break at work – not much but it introduced an important plot point. Last night, I was stuck on a NJ Transit train that was 30 minutes late pulling in to Penn Station and that gave me well over an hour of writing time. I’ve never been precious about where I write although, of course, I prefer my desk at home. I write on a small pad of paper when I don’t have my laptop with me and on my laptop when I have it. I have a couple of long flights coming up and those are always good for getting writing done. I don’t understand writers who need a specific “atmosphere” to write – I’m just too busy to be so precious about my writing space. As long as I have my iPod and a few spare minutes, I’ll be writing. However, there is one aspect of my life that suffers during NaNoWriMo and that’s my daily poems. I wrote a short poem today but otherwise, I’m not able to stick to my daily schedule. I’m hoping to be at 25,000 this weekend in anticipation of some major academic work that needs to get done over the next four weeks. Meanwhile, what IS it about yellow roses?