Event(s on the) Horizon

(See what I did there?  In the title?  It’s a pun.  About space.  It’s a space pun.)

If you enjoy awkward puns like the pun above, and if you enjoy people even more awkwardly over-explaining their already awkward puns, then you might be excited to learn that soon, very soon, depending upon your geographical location, you may in fact be able to see me a.) make awkward puns and b.) awkwardly over-explain my awkward puns in person.

I am proud, humbled, honored, super-nervous, and super-exciting to say that I’ll be part of Writers Week Symposium at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  I am all of those adjectives largely because Writers Week was one of my very most favorite things about the MFA program at UNCW, which makes me even more proud and humbled and honored and super-nervous and super-excited.  You can find the entire schedule here, along with a list of presenters.  I’m still not sure how I’m on that list, and I feel a little bit like it’s an elaborate version of that One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other skit from Sesame Street (in case you follow that link, as you probably should, I am the big bowl of bird seed that has Big Bird so confused).  I’ll be giving a reading from Maleficae with several of my favorite fellow alums — Xhenet Aliu, Yvette Neisser Moreno, and Kate Sweeney — on Friday at 2:00.  I’ll also be speaking about life and writing and teaching and watching ANTM marathons and writing some more after graduation at 3:30.  I can’t promise a Miley Cyrus karaoke session, but, given my other choices when I was at UNCW as a graduate student (those pink-and-magenta-striped spiked heel ankle boots, that homemade Sifl and Olly t-shirt, that weird phase when I dressed like an extra from Valley of the Dolls), anything is possible.

And the excitement doesn’t stop there!  If you’re in the greater Statesboro area, then you should know that the third annual The Write Place Festival takes place next week.  I am especially excited for the main event, which takes place on Thursday, November 14th, at 7 PM in the Emma Kelly Theatre.  This year, six incredible local writers will be reading their work in the Festival.  Readers include GSU faculty member and fiction writer Sarah Domet; GSU faculty member and poet Christina Olson; GSU alum, faculty member, and poet Zach Bush; GSU alum and novelist Jordan Fennell; and Maya Van Wagenen, a local fifteen year old and multi-category winner of last year’s Write Place high school literary awards competition, whose first book is coming out in 2014: Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (you may be thinking to yourself, oh, how cute, she’s fifteen, but really you should be thinking to yourself, oh my God, she’s fifteen and she’s an absolute firecracker of a writer with a dynamic and original voice and just wow).  I’ll be signing books after the reading, and am again proud and humbled and honored and all of the other adjectives to be part of this wonderful event and included in this group of writers, big bowl of birdseed or not.  You can find more information about the Festival and see the dates and times for the full schedule of events here.

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Revisionings

I’m at this weird moment with my writing.  I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts.  They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done.  On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions.  In other words:

  • I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
  • I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.

  • I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
  • I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
  • I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
  • I’m remembering what I meant by FUNERAL WHAT’S SAID STOPPED WRITING ESP ABOUT BC ALSO THIS ISN’T THE CLIMAX END TO TENSION THAT CHANGES THINGS CATS.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.

It’s an interesting in-between place.  It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place.  And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place.  When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying.  I start thinking, this is not good.  Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.

This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place.  I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work.  Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true.  I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master.  I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion.  We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces.  I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.

Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited.  Thrilled.  Nervous.  Lucky.  Most of all, lucky.  I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  Instead, it’s been the rule.  I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning.  I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.

Tonight. Atlanta. Kavarna. True Story. BOOM.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that the outside world and I don’t often get along, so I am not often out in it.  But tonight?  Tonight, outside world, it is ON.  I’ll be participating in Show and Tell, which was my favorite class in grammar school, and reading an essay about an awkward date and my feet at the True Story! Reading Series.  It’s at Kavarna Bar and Coffeeshop in Atlanta (well, the Decatur part of Atlanta), Georgia.  It starts at 8 and Charles McNair and Benjamin Carr are reading too, which is very exciting but also makes me feel the need to breathe into a brown paper sack.  But in, like, an awesome way.

The folks at True Story! posted an excerpt from one of my essays as an incentive.  I figured I’d double that incentive and post the next bit of the essay here.  This isn’t the essay I’m reading tonight, but it IS the story of the most traumatic moment of my grammar school life that didn’t involve gym class.  It also tells the story of why I didn’t get to go to the Young Author’s Conference in 1988, which was totally a big deal.  Also, I should let the Internet know that all of the people involved in this situation ended up totally okay.  No one’s brain actually fell out, and Christopher beat me in the egg race at Field Day every year after this.  Enjoy.

            In that second I imagined what would happen: he’d thud to the floor and look up, startled, and regret with the force of ten thousand Acts of Contrition the great and torturous pain he’d caused me for months.  I imagined that he’d look at me as if for the first time, admiring my bravery and also my ability to be bad, really bad, as bad as he and Edric and even Johnathan Damiani were at their very worst, and stand up and kiss me the way he and every other boy on the junior varsity pee-wee football team, according to rumor, kissed Jennifer Williams when no one was looking.

It started the way it was supposed to start: Christopher’s knees bent. Christopher fell.  His eyes rolled upwards and then, for a second, leftwards at me.  Then his body thudded to the floor.  And then there was another thud.  And then I realized: he had hit his head against the corner of the desk behind him.

There was motion. Miss Hanks blurred into a run from her desk to our desks, then picked up Christopher’s head.  Christopher’s eyes rolled around like he was dying.  Jennifer ran for paper towels.  Miss Hanks yelled “what the hell were you thinking” and the whole class gasped.  No one knew what was worse: Christopher dying or Miss Hanks saying hell and not meaning the place in which we could spend all of eternity suffering.  She pulled Christopher to stand and said that none of us, not a single one of us, were allowed to move or speak or anything while she was gone, and then there was the space on the floor where Miss Hanks and Christopher and his rolling eyes had been.  And then I saw it: blood.  Three small circles of blood, and inside of one of those circles, two small brown specks.  They were from his brain.  They had to be pieces of his brain.

“Back in black / I hit the sack / I been too long / I’m glad to be back.”

Hey.

Are you still here?

Okay.  I hope so.  And I’m glad if you are.

When I first sat down to write this, I thought, I am going to write about how all of a sudden we are halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.  And then I realized that I’d been writing “7” for the month for, like, oh, thirty-one days now.  And then I mathed and realized that half of twelve is six, not seven, which means we are over halfway through 2013 and I didn’t even realize it.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.  Or, I guess, I’ve been trying to blog, but I haven’t been able to put much of my energy into a post.  For a while I told myself, Self, you are totally experimenting.  You’re just micro-blogging.  You’re a revolution and that revolution is CUTTING EDGE.  Then I remembered that I am not a revolution, nor am I particularly cutting-edge at anything, and that illusion lay shattered, like the shards in the Delicate Vase Aisle at Hobby Lobby after being visited by a mob of grammar school kids who have just eaten too many M&Ms.

Like I mentioned in my revolutionary and cutting-edge micro-blogging entries, there have been Circumstances, and these were the kinds of Circumstances that require most-and-I-mean-most, if not all, of one’s energies.  These were the kinds of Circumstances that require a re-routing of one’s life and how one lives it, the kinds of Circumstances that — very, very literally — stop one in one’s tracks and require one to Think.  A lot.  And then to Adjust.

That is all very vague, you are probably thinking.  Why are we talking in such vague terms and using David Foster Wallace capital letters to try to make up for it, you are probably also thinking.  Those are both perfectly legitimate things to be thinking, and I guess the thing is that I have, after Thinking and then a lot more Thinking and then Adjusting, come to the place where I am ready to say that there have been Circumstances but not to talk about what they were/are.  I mean, I have been writing about Circumstances, sure, but in the Let’s Put This In Creative Nonfiction Form So I Can Go As Slowly And Carefully As I Need To And Then Use A Couple Of Metaphors About Christmas Lights To Help Me Out Kind Of Way, not the Very Public As In Immediately Very Public Blogging Kind Of Way.

And that’s the strange and spectacular thing about writing, I think, and, really, reading — there’s something terrifying about the blank page, and that’s the thing we tend to talk about.  But there’s also something amazing and transformative and meditative about the blank page, and then about the way one puts words onto it.  The blank page gives a person the space — and the safety — that they need to think things through.  And I mean really think things through.  When I write poetry, I’m often prisming off of my personal experience, but in very extreme and sometimes even absurd ways.  I’m taking myself to the edges of language and seeing what’s there.  I’m taking each situation to its extreme, and then every angle of each situation, to see how it looks.  I’m turning it over and over again in my mind, and with each turn it becomes something new.  I’m speaking about things in a way I can’t speak about them with everyday language, which also means that I’m speaking about things I can’t speak about in everyday language.  That’s because everyday language belongs to everyday life, and there are things that I just can’t spend a lot of everyday time with.  There are things that will shut you down, will stop you from moving inside of everyday life, where there are things that have to keep moving.  There are groceries to buy and student papers to grade and cats to feed.

The everyday world keeps moving, and one must move with it.  Everyday life must be lived.  And so, in these Circumstances, I’ve been grateful for that blank page.  I’ve been grateful for the moments of respite it provides, for the sacramental space it creates, for the place where I can take a break from moving and just be still for a while with my words and the realities they represent, so that I can keep moving, keep doing, keep living.

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Alice B. Toklas*

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself and my writing, it’s that major breakthroughs and advances — well, they don’t come easy.  Sure, from time to time a breakthrough will come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page, but I know that I can’t depend upon that.  I also know that these breakthroughs only come hurdling through the clouds and sky and onto my laptop or notebook page if I’m there at my laptop or notebook page.  In other words, I do sometimes have breakthroughs out of the clear blue sky that make everything very much easier,

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today's story.

This is a photograph of the feline Alice B. Toklas, who is the hero of today’s story.

but said out-of-the-clear-blue-sky everything-easier-making breakthroughs only come from hard work.

And when I say hard work, I mean hard work.  I mean hard, frustrating work.  I mean minutes and hours and days and years of hard, hard, hard frustrating work.  And sometimes it takes a very long time, and always it takes being honest with myself in a way that isn’t exactly comfortable.

It’s a funny thing, being a writer — often, when I finally figure out how to do something and do something well, it’s exactly the point when I know I shouldn’t get comfortable.  If I get comfortable, I do the same thing over and over again, kind of like my treat addict of a cat, Alice B. Toklas — she’s figured out that if she goes in the kitchen and meows and looks up at me in this certain unbelievably pitiful way, she will receive two treats.  But writing isn’t like that, no matter how pitiful the look I give my laptop.  Eventually, the treats stop coming.  Or else the treats do keep coming, but they’re increasingly stale.  Like, moldy stale.  Yes, I’m doing something I figured out how to do, and sometimes even to do well, but I’m not growing.  I’m not moving to the next level.  I’m not taking risks and challenging myself and thinking, really thinking, about what I’m doing.  I’m not engaging with language and the way it’s built.  I’m not doing myself or my work any favors.

And so I keep pushing myself to push myself, even if I don’t get the treats.  And usually, when I’m moving towards a breakthrough, there are no treats anywhere to be found (apparently, I have decided to stay with this metaphor and stretch it beyond its capacity.  Which is, incidentally, one of the things that I do when I’m not pushing myself the way I need to push myself as a writer.  Harumph).  There are just — pardon me, but Anne Lamott’s phrase is too perfect not to borrow — shitty first drafts.  And shitty second and third and fourth drafts.  There are hours of staring at a screen, putting a line in one place and then moving it and then deleting it completely, only to put it exactly where it was the next day.

See?  Frustrating.  Like, beyond.

And that’s the state I was in a while ago, when I realized that I had no idea where Alice B. Toklas was (the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course; it’s pretty clear where the actual Alice B. Toklas is, or was).  This is generally bad news because it could mean that she’s eaten a couch or gotten arrested for spying on my neighbors.  I started walking around the house very slowly and saying Alice very softly, both because I didn’t want to scare her and

This is the ball and the corner in question.  I'm posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

This is the ball and the corner in question. I’m posting a photograph of it mostly to remind myself, in the future, of what kind of ball Alice B. Toklas likes for when Alice B. Toklas eats it or gives it to the cicadas or something and I have to buy more of them.

because a disappeared cat is a generally terrifying situation.  When I found her, she was in the corner of my bathroom, trying to wedge her let’s-call-it-big-boned-and-just-very-furry body between the toilet and the bathtub.  At first I thought this was just another thing that Alice B. Toklas likes to do, like licking the windows or hiding under things by only putting her head under them and closing her eyes.  Then I started hearing a bell, and I realized that there was a reason for her hiding behind the toilet, besides, you know, hiding behind the toilet: she was trying to get her ball out of the corner, and with the kind of complete and total focus my cats usually only give their food bowls or my feet when they want to bite them.  I decided to help her out and picked up the ball and threw it, expecting her to jump joyfully after it.  Instead, she just looked up at me in great confusion — or, at least, more confusion than usual, which I admit is quite a bit of confusion.  I said what and she just sat there, staring with great confusion until, finally, she walked off in defeat to chew on a sofa or something.

That’s when I realized that it wasn’t the ball itself that Alice B. Toklas wanted; it was the challenge of getting to the ball.  She enjoyed the struggle, the fight.  She loved the work itself — and then the bell went off in my mind.  I realized that’s what I needed to do, too — to let myself relax, to allow myself the shitty first, second, third, fourth, and nth drafts, and to just enjoy playing with language, finding new ways into words.  I may get the ball.  I may not.  In the end, really, I think it’s not about the product but the process — not the solution, but the struggle — and learning to be happy with both.

* That is, the feline Alice B. Toklas, of course.  Everything I learned from the human Alice B. Toklas is only legal in Amsterdam, Washington, and Colorado.