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.
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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.
So…I wrote some book reviews & The Brooklyn Rail decided to print them. You can also find them online here [Monica Drake], here [Chris Offutt], and here [Kristin Hersh, Kim Gordon, Carrie Brownstein].
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.
I generally try to keep these posts focused on writing and editing and the more creative aspects of my life but in the midst of one of the more bitter Democratic primary processes I can remember, I find myself at odds with many acquaintances (I hesitate to call them “friends”) over the rhetoric being slung about by the Sanders’ campaign. I’ve been told I’m “voting gender,” “voting with an older demographic,” and “not understanding Progressive politics.” Several people I admire have responded to this rhetoric – perhaps none better than Gloria Steinem – but I find myself feeling that people just want me to “be quiet.” As a woman and a feminist, this is a feeling I’ve had before – many times. It’s a part of the insidious anti-woman behavior of many in this country. When I was a young undergrad at Smith, I traveled with a group to UMass-Amherst for a rally in support of Geraldine Ferraro. We were met with a HUGE crowd of “bros” holding signs that read “Ditch the Bitch.” This atmosphere has not changed. The assumptions made by Sanders’ supporters that Clinton supporters are a) not “Progressive” b) voting w/a gender bias c) not smart enough to understand the nuances of this campaign, or d) too “old” to vote outside “the Establishment” are all deeply disturbing and deeply flawed. I am an intelligent (some would say “over”) educated, politically Left, “progressive” and yes, a woman of a certain age. To suggest that my politics are “invalid” or “simplistic” or that I have not thought through ALL candidates and their ability to represent the causes I champion is not only disrespectful but also leaves me questioning the foundation of their views. When Obama ran the first time, I was hesitant to support him – because, I believed, he simply did not have the experience necessary for the job. Because of this hesitancy, I was called a “racist” by more than one person. The assumption was that I was hesitant because I didn’t want a black man in office. I was (and am) thrilled that we had two terms with a black man in office. Obama accomplished a great deal but his lack of experience did cause problems during his first term. And that’s part of why I’m supporting Clinton – because she has the experience. (Sanders does not). The other part? Because she is a champion of human rights – including women’s rights (why we always have to specify “women” as if we’re not included in “human” speaks to the broader issue of misogyny). That Clinton is a woman who is both accomplished and intelligent leaves her open to vicious attacks from the Right and from those who position themselves as a part of the “Left” – but bias is bias and I for one am sick of it. It is time for this country to have a woman president – we’ve waited long enough. I am proud to call myself a Liberal and a Leftist and I am voting for Clinton – not just because she is a woman but because I’ve done the research and I believe she is the best PERSON for the job. I also believe that there is nothing “progressive” about a bunch of white people voting for yet another aging white male – whatever he claims his politics may be. Whatever the outcome, I remain, as always, an optimist – eventually women will have equality in this country and eventually, we will have a woman president. Here’s hoping 2016 is that year.
Orcas Residency Day 1: long, long travel day to Orcas Island. Taxi driver tour of the “main points in town,” did some major editing for 2 hrs, then had a fabulous (vegan!) dinner and great conversation with our host and fellow attendees. Wish I could stay here for a month. or a year.
Orcas Residency Day 2: woke up to dark (except 1/4 moon). Currently rediscovering: there is such a thing as too much coffee (even fancy WA State coffee). Fixed the sudden laptop crash. Currently hacking the novel into tiny pieces – somewhat inspired by the sound of a chainsaw in the distance.
Orcas Residency Day #3: woke up to dark again. This whole late sunrise thing is a drag. Smell of coffee got me out of bed. The quiet here leaves my ears feeling like I’ve been holding shells to them all night. Spent the morning drinking coffee and discussing Ph.D. programs and critical theory with our host. May go for a walk in the rain soon or just inside looking out at dripping trees. Oh & writing. Splitting my manuscript open like an overripe peach & digging out the rot.
Orcas Residency Day #4: up early and went with the group up to Cascade Falls. Hiked the lake loop hike (5? miles) and part of another hike before my knee gave out. Then back to K. House for hot tub and shower and dinner and some weird modern version of the exquisite corpse game. And now, time to write.
Orcas Residency Day #5: can’t believe how quickly the time has passed here. This morning woke up to a 5am call from my vet’s office. Mina is sick (still) but in good hands. I wrote all morning until my back was screaming. Headed out into the cold for a walk to the beach where I found many interesting things including a partial view of REAL mountains. Stuck my toes in the ocean and then was joined by Nancy Lord who told me it was too cold. We walked back while she looked at birds (red winged blackbirds, starlings, chickadees, thrush, a very fat robin, and some harlequin ducks). I went off to soak in the hot tub and now more writing. We’re all heading out to Doe Bay for dinner tonight and then it’s down to the final stretch.
Orcas Residency Day #5: one window shows blue sky, the other shows grey. About to have more coffee and head down to the beach to look for mountains. And then, back here to write and write some more.
Today is apparently David Bowie’s birthday. I spent most of it sitting at the beach, staring at mountains, writing bad poetry and listening to Calexico. And now I’m going to listen to more Calexico and write some (hopefully) good fiction. Sorry Bowie. Maybe later.
Orcas Residency Day #5 (part 2): day started with coffee and writing then beach (!!) where there was some blue sky and also, mountains. I wrote a poem at the beach and met a new dog friend. Then back to the house for more writing followed by a field trip with the awesome non-fiction Alaskan writer Nancy Long to the Island Hoppin’ Brewery where we shared a flight of beer and made friends with some local school teachers. Then back home for more writing followed by another wonderful home-cooked meal. After dinner, we each shared some of the work we’ve done while here – really powerful writing – and then talked until late. I will indeed miss these new writerly friends of mine.
Orcas Residency Day #6: last full day at the residency. Got up early and had breakfast with our host and a couple fellow writers then I walked down to the beach. Sun reflecting off all the melting frost. The beach is cold but there’s a clear blue sky and a full view of the mountains. Only seabirds for company. Back now for more coffee and some writing. This afternoon, we’ll be at the East Sound Library joining their writers’ group then dinner in town and likely back here for a last night of quiet and writing. The long trip back to Seattle tomorrow and then back to NYC.
Orcas Residency Day #6: settling in for some writing after a long day. Started out with coffee and then a trip to the beach to stare at Mt. Baker. After that: coffee and more writing. Then walked to East Sound with Nancy Lord, stopped at the book store and bought one of her books. We met the other writers at the Library where ArtSmith’s Jill facilitated a very packed writing round table focused on “place.” Lots of creative people on this island. I read two very short pieces and got some kind words from some locals. Overall a good afternoon of hearing and sharing work. Then we had a great Mexican meal followed by some hot tub time and now wrapping up another long day of writing and enjoying the culture and nature on this beautiful island. Tomorrow two of us head back to the mainland (Anacortes, then Seattle) and too soon, I will be back in NYC.
While I’m still slogging away at NaNoWriMo (and about now it DOES feel like a “slog”)…I’m also trying to get through the last of this semester’s course work and final papers, etc. As a Ph.D. student with more than one Master’s Degree behind me (I have 4 if you’re counting), I’ve learned to separate “emotional” responses from “critical” responses. Despite this ability, since 2012 when I was first diagnosed with PTSD, one of the struggles I’ve had is responding “appropriately” to images, sounds, and texts. In other words, when I see violence, I “over” react. But what does this actually mean? This week’s reading for a course I’m taking on the history of documentary photography – Susie Linfield’s “Cruel Radiance” – focuses on images of “political violence” and responses – critical and personal – to these images. It’s rare that my academic reading aligns with specific “real life” events but reading critical discussion of how “we” should respond to images of human suffering while the events in Paris unfolded was both apt and also, incredibly difficult. To be clear – my suffering is not as “personal” as that experienced by those who lost loved ones or were direct witnesses to the Paris attacks (or those in Lebanon) – I’m not claiming that. One of the worst symptoms of PTSD is the way it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to view violence and achieve that distance necessary to “process” it. But is this really what we should be doing? I don’t want to feel the debilitating pain that I feel when I view new footage, photographs or read about human suffering (torture, war, famine, etc.) but I also agree with Linfield that we have an ethical obligation NOT to turn away. But how do I get past the feeling of shock and helplessness such viewing causes? How do I process these images (or in the case of my class assignment – write an “appropriate” response paper to an academic text) without internalizing the fear and despair I feel at witnessing the suffering of others. Linfield suggests that it is through the viewing of images of suffering that we become inspired to be active in human rights efforts. But for those of us who suffer from PTSD and who don’t have the “proper” filters for viewing such images, is it ethically wrong to turn away? How can we learn to empathize without descending into the deadly cycle of flashback-anxiety-hopelessness that PTSD can cause? No answers here, just questions.