of residencies, “home,” and Cancer

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.

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of shifted sacrums and writing residencies

epiduralImagine 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.

summer descends

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.

best of 2014

Somehow it’s already a new year and I’m still convincing myself to get back in my regular rhythm of work and writing and socializing and sleeping 6-7 hrs/night instead of 8-10 hrs/night with extended naps in between. Having just come back “down south” to NYC and out of the cold, dark place that is New England in winter, I’d like to suggest we just skip over January and February.  As I made a concerted effort to stay offline, I neglected some year end chores like thinking about just what it was I consumed in 2014: words, music, film. I read very little new fiction and listened mostly to classical and friends’ music but here for good measure are lists of things I found worthwhile in 2014:

2014 books (no particular order):

  • Bark: Lorrie Moore
  • Can’t and Won’t: Lydia Davis
  • The Laughing Monsters: Denis Johnson
  • The Shell Collector: Anthony Doerr (I know…not released in 2014 but one of the best I read in 2014)
  • Remembering the Year of the French: (Guy Beiner, also not released in 2014)
  • Lila: Marilynne Robinson
  • The Beautiful Thing that Awaits us All: Laird Barron
  • This Side of Brightness: Colum McCann

2014 music (music released in 2014 or performances in 2014 – in no particular order)

  • Jack White: Lazaretto
  • The Black Keys: Turn Blue
  • St. Paul & Broken Bones: Half the City
  • Afghan Whigs: Do to the Beast
  • Mastodon: Once more round the sun
  • Nick Cave live at Town Hall
  • Bryan Ferry live at the Beacon Theater
  • Jessie Kilguss: Devastate Me
  • Peg Simone live at various

2014 movies (released in 2014 – no particular order)

  • Only Lovers Left Alive
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Frank
  • Maleficent
  • The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
  • Inside Llewyn Davis
  • Calvary

several hundred manuscripts in…

In my “spare time” when I’m not at work or school or the library, I work as an editor for Black Lawrence Press. As part of this work, I read hundreds of fiction manuscripts. These mainly come in through BLP’s contests but also through an open reading period. I’ve read some stellar work, some mediocre work, and some incredibly shoddy work. What always gets me though is when writers don’t take the time to check basics like formatting (what’s with all the single-spaced mss?), spelling, basic punctuation and grammar, and little nit-picky things – keeping a character’s named spelled the same way consistently, knowing basic geographical details of the city where a story is based, I could go on but…Reading this I feel I’m being one of those awful cranky-pants editors who forgets that that manuscript is someone’s hard-fought work. I guess my point is: if you DO love your work enough to send it out into the world, why not love it enough to polish it up? And why not also read the basic submission guidelines for the press you’re submitting to? {And yes, I know that last sentence I just wrote is in dire need of a strong editorial hand.} Given all the above, as I said, I’ve also come across some truly stellar work. Jon Chopan’s Pulled from the River, TJ Beitelman’s John the Revelator, and a stunning short story, Blood, by Matthew Cheney that’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read in ages. You can read Blood here: http://www.one-story.com/index.php?page=stories&story_id=81 where it was first published in 2006. You can also read it in his short story collection coming out on Black Lawrence Press at some point in the hopefully not too distant future (print publishing being the slow moving beast that it is).  So I guess what I’m trying to say is, there’s a LOT of great writing out there and there could be more if writers would take better care of their work – clean it up, care about word choices, read & learn from more great writers, and by all means: double-space those manuscripts. I treat all manuscripts with equal respect and I value the work every writer is attempting but I won’t go blind for anybody’s work.

almost time for National Novel Writing Month

In the midst of mid-terms in my PhD program, I’ve decided what with all that spare time I have, to sign up for another year’s National Novel Writing Month. I’ve done this process four times with varying results. 3 out of four, I’ve completed a “novel” or at least the required word count. One of those novels went around to agents a bit and now sits sadly on my hard drive waiting to be revisited.  A friend asked if I thought “that whole writing a novel in a month” was a waste of time. I’d argue that no writing is a waste of time (aside from some “academic” writing or that FB posting I do when I should be doing other things). That said, whether or not I’ll “do” anything with the novel I plan to write this November isn’t really the point. It’s the writing itself that’s important. One year, I wrote the first half on a very long flight, wrote a few pages over Thanksgiving and finished it up on the flight back to NYC. This year I’ll try to find time by getting up earlier, going to bed later, and cutting back on my already limited social life. Final papers for the fall grad school semester will be looming and likely, too many manuscripts to read for Black Lawrence Press but all the same, I will get a first draft of a new novel done. And maybe I’ll even post part of it here if & when I remember that I have a blog.