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.
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.
The week before Memorial Day Weekend, I went to my doctor to see about an ongoing sharp pain in my left foot. She sent me for X-rays, told me I had a fracture and sent me to an orthopedic specialist. I was told I had a “Jones” fracture in the fifth metatarsal of my left foot. I don’t know how or when or where this happened but I’d been walking on it “for a while.” The X-ray showed some “self-healing,” I was fitted with a massive orthopedic boot and told I should not walk distances and could not run, bike, or swim in the ocean for the next two weeks.
That weekend I spent in Cape May at a beachfront Victorian. I hobbled around, sat on our deck drinking beer, listening to metal and staring at the ocean. We went out onto the sand twice. Both times, I sat in a chair under an umbrella and stared at the water while my friend swam. I’m not someone who goes to the beach to sit in chairs under umbrellas. I go to the beach with an old Mexican blanket, a towel and a paperback. I like to swim out past the break and stare at the sky. I’m a strong swimmer and I usually let the waves take me where they will. And then I swim back in and read and bake in the sun and listen to Black Angels for a while and and repeat it all many times. But this trip, I sat in the hot sun and watched the waves and tried to read but could not. We packed up soon enough and went for drinks.
When I got back to NYC, I got used to hauling myself up the five flights to my apartment. I got used to taking taxis everywhere. I knew it would be over in two weeks so it was okay. I couldn’t go out much so I tried to write. I failed. I felt like my brain was somewhere else, I felt like my skin was too small for my body.
Two weeks passed. New X-rays showed my foot had not healed. The orthopedist sent me to a surgeon. He showed me the gap between my bones and explained the surgical procedure. I spent the next few days readying my apartment and my life for the post-op two week period when I would be unable to leave my apartment. I selected a stack of books t0 read and two blank journals for writing and put them near my favorite chair. If I had to be stuck in a chair for two weeks, at least I could get some reading/writing done.
The surgery was on June 16th. I won’t write the details here. In post-op, I was told to keep my weight off my foot completely and given a pair of crutches. The nurses told me I’d have to go upstairs “on my butt.” I got myself up into my apartment through sheer force of will, and strong arms & shoulders. I crawled on my belly to my armchair. A good friend helped me get situated and then I was alone in my apartment, too full of drugs to care.
The next two weeks I could barely eat much less read or write. The litany of stories that often fills my brain was silent. The TV was on, of course, but I rarely followed one show from beginning to end. Friends came and went, ran errands, kept me company. I lived in a world full of fog and few words.
Before I knew I’d be spending my summer with a broken foot, I’d signed up for an online non-fiction writing class (I work at a University and can take classes for free). I was also taking French 2 and an undergrad class on the mystery novel. Two weeks into my recovery, I spent one day catching up on all of my homework: I read, I wrote, I conjugated French verbs. It was exhausting but also made me feel like I might still have a functioning intellect.
After the two weeks past, I got myself downstairs and to my surgeon’s office. X-rays showed healing and I was fitted with another boot. Crutches were traded in for a cane. I made plans to go back to work and I ignored the 4th of July.
I spent the next two weeks in the boot: the first week I had to sleep in it. My walking was awkward and for very short distances. Every day started with the challenges of a shower, getting dressed, and making it down five flights of stairs. I made myself walk the single block from work to CVS or the block and half to Rite Aid. It was exhausting.
My writing consisted only of the single essay I had to write each week for class. The teacher’s comments were less than helpful and the assigned readings rarely inspiring. I’d taken the class because I wanted to spend more time working on creative non-fiction. I’m comfortable with my fiction writing skills and my ability to churn out an excellent academic paper but felt a bit wobbly about my creative non-fiction.
This past Friday I met with my surgeon again and he said it was time for “next steps.” The boot came off and I’m starting PT today. On Saturday, I put on my left running shoe for the first time since that week before Memorial Day. With a friend, I walked (slowly) through the Cutter Arboretum on Long Island but my left leg muscles have atrophied and walking is difficult.
My surgeon gave me clearance to swim, do recumbent bike, and to walk. “But don’t swim in the ocean.” Although this last instruction seems particularly cruel as we head into August and prime beach weather, he did say I can expect to start running again “in about three months.” I’d thought maybe next spring, if at all.
So far this summer has been one of immobility. In the past, when I walked, I’d listen to music and tell myself stories in my head. Stories I’d later write down. It’s something a lot of writers do. Immobility hasn’t silenced me completely. I’ve written three passable essays in my summer class, maybe one powerful one. I don’t think I’ve learned more about creative non-fiction in this class except that I don’t think it’s what this particular writing teacher thinks it is. I do think I’ve learned something essential about myself: I need to move to write, I need to move to be who I am, and when I can’t walk, when I can’t move every day, my voice becomes strained, less easily accessible. It’s still there but like my leg muscles, it needs motion to be healthy, it needs movement to be strong.
Imagine your sacrum. Now, imagine you’re a walker/hiker/runner taking your sacrum for granted (as most of us do). Now, imagine your sacrum shifts and suddenly: you can’t walk any distance without pain, you can’t run at all, and hiking is a struggle at best. This past January, I was having severe lower leg pain (anterior tibialis) and stretching and rest didn’t help. I tried for two months to fix the pain on my own. Then I went to my doctor. My doctor sent me to a specialist who sent me to get an MRI. The MRI showed “major issues” including a narrowing of the opening where all the “big nerves” go from the spine down the legs. This narrowing along with a fused vertebrae and a shift in alignment of my sacrum was squeezing my nerves – not dissimilar to sciatica. All my life I’ve lived without back pain or only minor pain easily relieved through stretching and an Advil or two. I was prescribed a short course of steroids and weekly P.T. Now, five months later, I often can manage my chronic pain and although I walk to & from work every weekday (20 mins across town), sometimes I have to stop and wait for the nerve/muscle pain to subside enough to continue. I still can’t run (doctor’s orders) and this fall’s hiking season may well pass me by. One of the suggested solutions: an epidural injection into the pocket where the nerves are held. I haven’t yet made the decision to do this but I have mountains yet to climb and miles of cities to walk so it’s likely I’ll have no choice. Meanwhile, the time I would love to be spending running and climbing and walking I’ve instead been spending reading, writing, and working toward my Ph.D. Given my work/school/work schedule, I don’t always have the time for my writing that I’d like to have. This summer in addition to taking French 1&2 and two graduate classes, I’ve been writing, editing, and prepping work to be sent out into the world. During this process I saw a notice for a writing & fine arts residency in a “dream” location: Orcas Island (WA State). I pulled some writing together, wrote an application essay and submitted everything right before the final deadline. Some weeks later, I got the AWESOME news that I was accepted and will be traveling to one of the most beautiful places on the planet this January to do nothing but write and sleep and look at the water. Sometimes good things do happen. Despite or because of wobbly sacrums.
I recently saw a brief news story on “Summer Seasonal Affective Disorder.” The suggestion being that some people suffer on sunny days the way other suffer in the darker months. Although I love the sun and the warmth and long days at the beach, this summer is full of humid long afternoons and for anyone who is crowd-shy and not a fan of stench, Manhattan is no place to be in the summer. Yesterday I shut the windows, drew the drapes and spent the day reading (Eavan Boland’s essays) and writing. Writing about rain and wind and the darker days of fall and winter. Recently while working my way through a massive stack of manuscripts to be read for one of my “extra” jobs, I began to feel: disheartened, disgusted, disenchanted with the whole process of writing and reading until I came across a manuscript that drew me in, kept me reading, editing as I went and – some two hours later – I looked up at the clock. And then I realized: it was my own work. It sounds weird I know but it’s a manuscript I’d written for NANOWriMO some years back and then just abandoned. Some important lessons I took away from this experience: I do like my own writing, editing is MUCH easier when time passes between the writing and the reading of work, no manuscript should ever truly be abandoned. Now that I have distance from this work, I can see the flaws: in plot construction, consistency of dialogue, logic of events, but I can also see the work that went into creating language that works and the important work yet to be done. At the end of that day spent reading, I confessed to a writer friend that I felt I had “done nothing all day.” She corrected me: “You HAVE been working all day. Doing what it is you are SUPPOSED to be doing.” And that was: writing. Writing is not just the creative act but the whole process: reading, editing, and taking stock of the work that’s been done. While summer is marketed as a time to “get outdoors!” to “have fun!” it can also be a time for reflection, for reading, for writing, for editing and to remind ourselves that as writers, we must take the time to do the hard work of reading and editing in order to do that thing we are SUPPOSED to be doing: writing. Everything else is just what we’re doing to fill the hours when we’re not writing.