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.
Category Archives: writing
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].
This year’s AWP conference was in WDC and what with the current political climate & the crowds of deep-thinking humans attending, I had high hopes for “activist moments.” Perhaps there were some in the keynote(s) that I was too exhausted to attend or during something of the panels – too numerous to choose from. The single event advertised as specifically activist was on Saturday. After a tour of the very poorly designed DC Metro system trying to get from the Convention Center to the White House, I witnessed the end of a short “vigil.” A vigil where poets spoke and no one could hear. A vigil where there was insufficient light and no one could see. A vigil where the messages were so muddy as to fizzle out as soon as they were voiced. After taking part in countless post-election protests in NYC, I felt let down. This isn’t a time for holding candles politely and speaking softly. We’ve done too much of that.
AWP is always a bit of a mess – too many panels, too many people crammed into the book fair, not enough drinking water or edible food, terrible coffee (except the year AWP was in Seattle). But AWP is also a yearly affirmation that words matter; that people still read and write books; that there is more to American life than Reality TV, the LCD, fake news, and sound bites. At AWP17, I had countless enthusiastic conversations with writers, poets, editors, and even a few who self-identified simply as “readers.” There were also a number of MFA students who weren’t quite sure they could identify as “writers.” Note: If you commit to an MFA program – you’re a writer.
Working for a small press is a bit like working for an indie label (something I did a lot of in decades past). It doesn’t pay, it’s a lot of work, and you have to care about what you do. Many people who stopped by the BLP booth at the book fair asked, “What kind of fiction do you like/publish/read?” and “What do you look for in a book?” The best answer I can give to any of these questions is, “something good.” By which I mean a manuscript that shows not only a knowledge of plot and character but language, how to craft a sentence, how to edit. So many manuscripts I read have unnecessary prefaces, prologues, endless paragraphs telling me what the book is about. I want to read the book, not words telling me about the book. Certainly there are publishers, editors, agents who require query letters, a synopsis, etc. but not BLP. That first sentence is crucial. The first chapter in a novel, the first story in a collection has to be strong. Often when I read a manuscript that saves the best for the middle, I’m reminded of listening to band demos where the “best” song is third or fourth. This makes the assumption that the listener/reader/editor is going to listen or read more than the first song, the first few pages. We’re not, we don’t, we can’t.
I’m a writer myself and I know how frustrating the publishing world can be. In the past couple of years, my own non-academic writing has suffered from a surfeit of neglect. Sure I do poem-a-day & NaNoWriMo but I rarely send anything out into the world that’s not a book review, an academic essay, or a blog post. After each AWP, I feel inspired (at least a little) to send stories, poems, manuscripts out to any of the hundreds of journals and/or small presses that publish work I like. But it’s rare that I follow up on that feeling.
When my father died earlier this year I thought a lot about what I would say at his memorial. I ended up writing something the day prior and tossing everything else I’d drafted. When I thought about our relationship over the years and what it means to me to lose him, a lot of that loss is the silencing of his stories. He was a wonderful story teller. He told stories about his life, his ancestors, his childhood home, and the many and vastly varied places he saw in his long life and travels. There is some part of me now that wonders just what it matters whether or not my own stories ever get out into the world now that he’s gone. But there’s also a part of me that knows that when I say women’s voices matter, I also mean my voice, my stories and so I know I have to face down the ugly dual monsters of discouragement and fear of rejection and send my stories out into the world. Because I’m a writer and because my dad would want me to.
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.
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.
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.]