on The Empty & writing during ‘lockdown’

It’s coming up on the one-year anniversary of “lockdown” here in NYC. As someone with a “comorbidity” (awful word!) I’m scheduled to get the vaccine soon (after weeks & juggling appointment sites). It’s hard to repress memories of the abject terror I felt every night last March (and April and May) watching the numbers rise & rise. I’d like to say I was brave, that I did a lot of writing, that I learned to knit, that I edited my novel, stayed off FB, but none of that would be true. I did finish two drafts of my dissertation (a seemingly never ending process) & am due to get notes next week with a possible April defense (?!?). I kept up my freelance reviewing (& got paid). I made it through layoffs at “the day job,” re-embraced the WFH thing (I’ve always done freelance from home), spent my savings on an iMac & other office supplies (because: day job). I also settled into a new routine: up early & train via Zoom (or sleep in/read genre fiction). Shower. Smoothie. Log in to work. Mayor then Cuomo’s news conference. Daily work info meetings. YouTube Yoga for lunch OR walk in NYC taking photos of The Empty. I took some online classes (free @ the day job): Experimental Writing, Digital Marketing. I started “Running at Home” (it’s a thing on YouTube) eventually transitioning into running (in place) to videos of trail runners & races – favorites are random paths in the PNW (beach views) & a guy who runs in Norway. I donated half my closet to Goodwill (goodbye go-go boots & anything hot pink). I read hundreds of manuscripts. I got to know my neighbors better & when it got warmer, we all stood outside & tried to learn how to be social while socially-distanced. Someone set up a donation spot in our lobby & we all shared whatever we could. We traded info: which stores were open/closed, how to land a grocery delivery time-slot, who was gone & who was dead, how many apartments were empty…and of course, the marches & the fires & the boarded up windows & the omnipresent helicopters. There was a night when the shouting & the helicopters & the BOOMS from the Bowery were loud enough to trouble even The Cat. In July, I went to the beach & stayed in the ocean (away from people) for four days. I came back to a city hollowed out. More 1981 than 2001. I tried to write about this but instead, wrote about coming up over the crest of a wave into the midst of dolphins. In December I went for another COVID test & got on a plane. For Xmas, I gave my mother a self-made chapbook of photos and words March – December 2020. There weren’t many words & I still haven’t sent any out for publication. I don’t know if I want to share. All these ‘COVID Diaries’ – either they ring too horribly true (frontline workers) or they speak privilege (too many ‘devices’ for VIOS, whether or not to keep the nanny – who ARE these people?!?). I’ve always had a hard time reading 9/11-focused writing. There are very few pieces that work for me. I wonder, when I read all the many, many books & poems that will be written about COVID, about ‘lockdown,’ about this collective horror, our collective & terrible loss, who will have the strength and skill and power of the word to write it true. I don’t know if I can. #COVID #NYC #Writing

a little essay about pain.

Pain isn’t something people like to talk about; chronic pain even less so. Usually when someone asks how we’re doing, most people respond “okay” or “fine” but there are days when we’d all rather be honest, maybe scream instead. Chronic pain is like this: every morning it’s the first thing I think of when I wake up – where it hurts, how much it will hurt if I move, how much if I get out of bed, walk to the bathroom, take a shower, maybe go to the gym. It’s there when I’m at work, at lunch, out with friends (if I can go out), and there when I get home: which chair will hurt less to sit in & getting in to bed at night – how will that feel, how best to ready myself for the sudden sharp pain/s when I lie down. I’m a good sleeper and some doctors, friends, random observers have suggested this means my pain is “manageable.” Sure, just like a Doberman slobbering on a lead is manageable, just like the Climate Crisis is manageable. My pain is both a constant part of me (like my blood, bones, heart) and a separate entity. Like my PTSD, it’s an ever-present enemy but so deeply woven into my body and brain metaphors fail: a parasite, a disease, a “condition.” Recently someone suggested that I “must be healed by now” because I’m active: I walk to and from work most day, I walk during most lunch hours, I work out, I hike, I go to the beach. If I’m active does this mean I’m not in pain? No. It means I’m fighting – every day, every moment, every time I stand up to stretch or walk or sometimes, when it’s bad, even when I breathe. Chronic pain, like PTSD, is a lonely place. We experience it on our own. No one can know how I feel when I feel it, and no one understands – not really. I have a therapist – a lovely woman – who nods & smiles & sometimes guides our sessions in various helpful directions. But while I believe in the power of therapy, it’s really a Band-Aid on a giant gaping wound – another poor metapher.  Some have suggested that I’m “too dramatic” and somehow “acting” my pain, my disability, my PTSD. Avoiding the initial visceral anger, the pure white rage I feel when I hear words like this, I just breathe and try to move on. What I really want to say is how much I wish that for just one day, I could be pain-free, free of vertigo,  free of fear, and immune to triggers. There is guilt that accompanies my pain: a feeling that I should be “healed by now,” that somehow chronic pain is my fault. But I try, most times, not to listen to that guilt or the guilt that tells me I have no right to suffer from PTSD: I haven’t been in combat (unless being a pedestrian in NYC counts as a form of combat) & I didn’t serve as a First Responder at Ground Zero. But people experience trauma in different ways & recover in different ways. Some days I can walk the busy streets of Manhattan & tell myself I’m strong; often that feeling is broken into shards by the wail of a siren, a rush of feet, a barking dog, a bicycle, a crowded subway. Mostly it’s the sirens that get to me – that wail and then I sway and spin & have to reach for a wall, a lamppost, a quiet corner. And some days I can barely make it home from work – desperate for the quiet space on the other side of my double dead-bolted door where the only danger is pain. And no one understands this, not really. Unless they’ve felt it themselves, unless they wake up in pain and walk in pain every day. No one.

summer in the city

So far this has been a summer of reading, writing, and 10 days of travel (which is a lot for me). I managed to avoid the European heat wave in June & but got back to NYC just in time for our very own HEAT WAVE & a brutal reminder of how much I loathe summer in the city. While I do like how relatively empty things are: my gym, my day job, my apt building; I’m not a big fan of the herds of wandering, confused tourists or the STENCH: all that trash and effluvia baking away in the hot, hot sun. It makes it hard to go on long walks (other than my daily commuting) which breaks into my “thinking about writing” time. For me (as I’m sure for others) I do a lot of writing while I’m walking around – thinking about a book review I’m writing or the structure of a particular piece or line or maybe even listening to one of those characters jabbering away in my head. Since I got back from my travels, I’ve kept to my goal of submitting one creative piece a week (minimum). I used to use the “100 rule” – send it out 100 times and then shelve it for a while if no one accepts it – that rule lead to a many acceptances. But I’ve been lazy (or scared or busy) for a while & most of the writing I’ve been doing: book reviews, academic & of course: the dissertation (always hovering there behind everything).  Before I left on my all-too-brief vacation, I finished reading another batch of a few hundred manuscripts for one of my part-time editorial jobs – a process that I find equal parts exhausting & encouraging: there is some really good work out there. But there’s also a sort of ongoing refrain mingling with my dissertation-guilt – let’s call it “writing guilt” – asking every day: when will there be time to let those voices speak? to tell those stories? to send them out into the world? And so, despite the HEAT, despite all the other calls on my time (3 jobs, a dissertation & everyone/everything else), I’m going to try a weekly promise to myself to send out one story, or a poem or two, or maybe an essay – every week – just add it to the schedule like training or groceries or the dissertation [because: always the dissertation].  Wish me luck.

of lenses & pages & best books

Here it is February & I haven’t yet posted my Happy New Year & all that post…I’m not going to do the whole “best books/movies/moments” of 2018 thing but I did take a quick look at my 2018 Goodreads. My reading goal was 200 books. I read 133 which is 30 more than 2017. Granted this count doesn’t include the hundreds of manuscripts I read nor does it include extensive reading/research I did in 2018 for my dissertation, for book reviews & for chapters I wrote for an encyclopedia project. My Goodreads reading stats are interesting to me: those 133 books equal 40961 pages with most books ranked 3 out of 5 stars. 5 star books include Shelley Jackson’s “Riddance,” Hillary Rodham Clinton’s “What Happened,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters,” Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Robert Levy’s “The Glittering World,” & a few more. My most-read author of 2018 was a close tie between Kathy Acker (for my dissertation) & Ursula K. Le Guin. I read a lot of gender/feminist theory and a lot of fantasy/Sci-Fi (a break from all that theory). I also reviewed a LOT of books for various publications including The Brooklyn Rail & Publisher’s Weekly. For me, reading books as a reviewer is a different process from both academic reading & reading for pleasure. I use a different critical lens when I’m reading a novel (or memoir) for review than say, when I’m reading an academic text. Often it’s hard to shut off the critical lens when I’m reading for pleasure so I generally try to read books that are well written (current favorites are Greenwood & McKillip).  In any case, I did read a lot in 2018 but in taking stock, I realize how little “creative” writing I did on a regular basis – sure I went to a one-week residency in Jan 2018 & did a blast of fiction writing during NaNoWriMo & contributed to an book-art project & an anthology (more on those later) but I’ve lost my regular practice of writing just to write & that’s something I want to change this year somehow between working full-time & part-time & writing a dissertation & having a life. Somehow.

“There’s something I wanted to tell you”

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

Of writing & islands; grief & Le Guin

This year started with a week at the ArtSmith residency on Orcas Island. I spent the week writing, reading, thinking about writing, talking about writing, walking in the rain (and the not-rain), and learning more about the work of the other fellows at the residency. It was surprisingly difficult for me to focus on my writing – maybe because I’m so used to having to write in the midst of NYC and all that quiet was daunting. Or maybe it’s because I was forced to confront the intense loss I feel whenever I return “home” to the PNW; even more so as January was one year since my father died. Much of my fiction contains elements of the PNW and its trees, air, water, and particular shades of darkness (and light) hold sway in my imagination in ways other places I’ve lived never will. Some of my work draws from my father’s stories, his family, the spaces and places he lived and it is difficult (if not impossible) for me to separate my nostalgia/longing for the PNW from my grief – both for my father and, always, for my brother whose death in the 1990s was part of the impetus of my family moving away from all those rain-dark days. With the recent death of Ursula K. Le Guin, I’ve been thinking more about her work – how much it meant to me in my earliest reading years and how I continue to come back to her words throughout my adult life. On a visit to Orcas Island Pottery I was struck by how much that place/space seemed to come out of one of Le Guin’s story-worlds. There’s a depth of beauty in her work that I found reflected on the island. How this week of trees and rain and quiet conversation will bleed into my writing this year will prove interesting and, hopefully, fruitful. I’m sending out an odd little short story I wrote one afternoon sitting in the library at ArtSmith’s Kangaroo House. I have no idea if it will find a home but sending it out into the world is a part of a promise I made to myself in January – to write more stories and to risk the sharing of those stories again. It is important to remember Le Guin’s words: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.”

of year’s end & ‘best-ofs’

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.