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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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.

Shedding Light on the Book of Shadows

So last night, I was watching television with my mother, which meant, as usual, that we had flipped around with great despair until, finally, we’d become resigned to watching something ridiculous.  In this case, the something ridiculous we watched was The Biography Channel’s Celebrity Ghost Stories.  No, really.  That’s seriously a thing.  It features a number of people who are almost or once were actual celebrities describing, with great suspense, their almost or actual hauntings.

This particular episode featured a typically almost-recognizable man who was scruffy enough to be believable as an almost- or once-celebrity.  Predictably, his wasn’t the most coherent story ever.  He’d been staying at a friend’s friend’s house in LA, where he found a box containing tarot cards and some really creepy cassette tapes full of really, really creepy chanting.  Then he had a bunch of girls over and something happened, and then something happened with a painting.  I don’t know, exactly, because I wasn’t exactly paying attention.  I was in the middle of this enormous paint-by-number project that required a great deal of focus.  Anyway, I started half-listening when the creepy music ramped up, implying that we were about to reach the cliffhanger before a commercial break.  The friend’s friend, it seems, had called because she somehow knew that he had unearthed the box with tarot cards and creepy cassette tapes.  She’d called to warn him not to mess with them.  “And then she said” – here, the story paused for maximum suspense and creepiness – “‘I’m a witch.’”

At that point, I wasn’t just listening.  I was furious.

After the commercial break, the almost-recognizable man repeated the sentence, pausing again before saying it: “a witch.”  Things in the house got worse and worse, until a demonic voice screamed “get out of here” and the man obeyed.  And that, he said, was the end.

Where do I begin.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials.  It's chilling beyond chilling.  Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It's a very, very difficult thing to read, but it's very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

This is the cover of the Malleus Maleficarum, or The Hammer of Witches, which lays down the system of beliefs that led to the European witch trials. It’s chilling beyond chilling. Wicasta and Christie Jury transcribed the text and posted it online to further education on the text and the trials. It’s a very, very difficult thing to read, but it’s very, very much more important to build knowledge and make sure nothing like this happens, in any form, again.

I was terrified, but it wasn’t the story that scared me.  It wasn’t just the flagrant disregard for paganism, or the absurd and inflammatory equation of paganism and Satanism (not the same thing, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous.  Not anywhere close).  It wasn’t just the complete ignorance about witchcraft (I’m guessing that the producers, Mr. Almost-Or-Formerly Famous, and/or The Biography Channel weren’t aware of the Wiccan Rede — An it harm none, do what ye will – which, I mean, perhaps they should take a look at that?  And stop with the harming?), it was the perpetuation of said ignorance, without thought.  It was the off-handed carelessness with which they perpetuated misinformation about an ancient, beautiful, and terribly misunderstood system of belief.

You’re probably thinking, Emma.  Come on.  It was just a ghost story.  Lighten up.  And yes, it was just a ghost story.  But I’m not sure I should lighten up.  It’s the mindset behind the ghost story that’s really, truly frightening – so frightening that it’s definitely worth discussing.

When I was doing research for Maleficae, I came across countless explanations for The Burning Times, the witch trials that happened in early modern Europe between the 15th and 18th century.  I read theories about ergot poisoning from central stores of grain, about movements of mass hysteria.  I read about how property laws changed to allow women to inherit property, which in turn made women less dependent on men – which many men wanted stopped, so they accused women engaged in pagan practices of consorting with Satan.  I read about how the Catholic Church gave midwives the power to perform baptisms so that babies who died shortly after birth wouldn’t be damned.  Women began to ask questions: if they could give this sacrament, why not the rest?  And the Church, the theory goes, responded with witch trials and executions.

Though the explanations differ, it all seemed to boil down to the same series of actions: one group feared or hated another, and so they turned against them.  That energy built and built.  People spoke out of ignorance, and that ignorance became dangerous.  That ignorance led to action, which led to persecution.  And the trials began.

It’s estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 people were killed.

There’s something missing here that I think is important, and that’s another group, another set of voices.  What’s missing here is the group that speaks up, the group that speaks for the persecuted, the group that says, at the very beginning, that perhaps everyone should cool off and actually talk to and understand each other.  Silence, it seems, is an action in itself.  Silence is acquiescence.

So yes, I probably did take the story too seriously.  But isn’t that the point?  What happens if you keep letting things go, telling yourself that you shouldn’t take them too seriously?  What happens if those things build and build, accreting a power of their own?  If silence persists, if no one says hey, wait a minute, if we continue to speak out of ignorance and ignore the fact that ignorance can become dangerous, and fast – well, that’s when the story becomes really, truly frightening.  Better to risk speaking up at the beginning than standing powerlessly by the story’s terrifying end.

The Accidental Professor

When I was a little kid and we went to the beach, I always had this strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting moment where I’d think to myself this is our first day at the beach; we have four more days at the beach, and then this vacation is over.  That sentence, I now realize, doesn’t look strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting at all; the only difficult thing about it, at first glance, is knowing where to put the punctuation.  But

This is a gratuitous photograph of a beach inserted to give my blog entry more visual interest.

This is a gratuitous photograph of a beach inserted to give my blog entry more visual interest.

when I thought it, I was completely overwhelmed with the realization that time passes, and that time in fact was passing, and in a few days the hotel room and the breakfast place downstairs with all of its impossibly tiny jars of jam and the ocean outside and the sand would pass beneath my feet, and everything would be over.*

That’s the same feeling I always had at the end of every semester of school.  This is my first day of exams; I have four more days of exams, and then they are over.  All year, time had been passing, and soon my gray locker and bulky typewriter and Trapper Keeper and goddawful erasable pens would pass beneath my feet, and I’d be another year older.**  This feeling would be even more strange and terrifying and utterly disorienting than the beach feeling, as it also meant I was one year closer to having to figure out what the hell, exactly, I planned to do with my life.  Thankfully, I was able to answer more school! for a long time — long enough for me to at least find, my second year of graduate school, a term that describes this feeling: mono no aware, the Japanese aesthetic idea of things having the feeling of time passing.  I’ve read a lot of different translations/interpretations of this concept, and most of them seem to fall in one of two camps: either mono no aware describes an image that represents the passage of time, like falling cherry blossoms or autumn leaves or a rotting Halloween pumpkin, or it describes the very feeling of the beach and the end of the semester, when one can literally feel that time is passing around, above, and beneath them.

I wonder, sometimes, if this is why I chose to teach at the college level: I was able to answer the question of what are you going to do after school with more school! and then FOREVER SCHOOL! 

Even as I type that, I know it’s wrong.  It’s wrong because I never really chose to teach.  It just happened.  I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be able to have things like running water and electricity, so I knew I had to find some way to make money.  I started noticing that most writers also taught, and so I thought to myself, ok.  That’s what we’re going to do, self.

When I fell into that decision — I can’t say I made it — I didn’t even particularly know what professors did.  I remember being pulverized by this realization during one of the very first conversations I had in graduate school, a loose sketch of which appears below:

Emma Bolden: Hi, I’m Emma Bolden, and I’m a new TA.
Someone, I Can’t Really Remember Who: Hi, Emma Bolden the new TA.  Welcome to your first college-level teaching job, where you will be teaching Comp.
Emma Bolden: What’s Comp?S,ICRRW: Ha ha ha ha. (Pause.)  Oh, you’re serious.  (S,ICRRW explains Comp to Emma Bolden).
Emma Bolden: Ha ha ha ha ha.  (Pause.)  Oh, you’re serious. Please excuse me. (Emma Bolden heads to the nearest bathroom to cry, then drives herself home with mascara still all over her face to tell her mother she’s terrified and thinks she won’t be able to do this ANY OF THIS.)

Though I do still have my I-won’t-be-able-to-do-this-ANY-OF-THIS moments, I finally feel more comfortable in the classroom because I finally remembered what my best teachers did: they talked.  They listened.  Most importantly, they learned.  I learned the most from professors who were learning along with me, reading and reaching to understand, who were willing to think in front of us, alongside us, with us.  And I learned that perhaps the even-more-most-important thing is to learn from my students, who have, in all honesty, every single day, taught me more than I could ever teach them.

Mono no aware in action. Or, well, lack of action.

Mono no aware in action. Or, well, lack of action.

At the end of every semester, I walk out of the classroom after picking up their portfolios.  I turn off the lights and turn to look at the empty tables, the empty desks, the windows looking out into the world we’ve all just re-entered.  And while I do still feel a tinge of that mono no aware moment, I also feel firmly rooted, as if I’m being held to the ground by my students and their words, which wait for me in the paper-clipped pages of their portfolios.  And then it hits me: a semester’s end isn’t an ending.  It’s a beginning, and the one we’ve all been working towards all semester long.  It’s the beginning of each student’s life outside the walls of the classroom, the beginning of each student walking into the world and taking their words with them, the beginning of their words in that world.  Suddenly, I’m happy about what we’re all leaving behind, because it means we’re all taking with us what we need to take with us, the knowledge and hunger and language, to make our own beginnings in the outside world.

Suddenly, being a professor feels like the happiest accident I’ve ever had.

*It’s entirely possible that my mother and/or father are reading this at the moment and thinking to themselves Oh and So that’s what all of that was about.  It’s also possible that he and/or she is rolling his and/or her eyes.  I’d therefore like to take this moment to say I know, guys, I know.  Also, I apologize for that time I spat out my bubblegum while floating in a swim-sweater in a crowded hot tub.  Also for sneaking into that crowded hot tub to float around in my swim-sweater in the first place.  Also for all of my childhood.  Thank you.

**Actually literally, since my birthday coincides with the end of the school year.

Home, Where My Love Lies Waiting, Silently For Me

I’m about to write something I never thought I would write.

First, some background: I love Lia Purpura. Like, LOVE. Her On Looking is on the list of Most Important Books I’ve Ever Read And I Mean Seriously. It’s the book that led me to write nonfiction. It’s the book that taught me what nonfiction could and should be, that gave me a glimpse at all of its gorgeous, glimmering possibilities. It’s a book that changed my life and the way I look at it, and therefore changed my very world. I won’t say how many times I’ve read it by now because the number is probably not healthy. I will say that I mention her in my classes at least once a week. I will also say that when I found out she had a new book coming out, I put it on my Advanced Creative Nonfiction syllabus immediately, no questions asked, done.

And then I read it.

There’s no question that Rough Likeness is a gorgeous book, full of the kinds of lyric twists and turns that make you know, and deeply, exactly what Dickinson meant when she wrote that good writing makes her “feel physically as if the top of [her] head were taken off.” It’s the type of writing that changes the way you think. I was overjoyed to dwell in Purpura’s world again, to be given the gift of it, to see the world as she sees.

And then I got to the center of the book, to an essay titled “There Are Things Awry Here.” And this is exactly where things, for me, went awry. It’s then that the world Purpura looks at is my world, the world I grew up in, or at least a highway’s short stretch away: Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It’s the world where I ate lasagna and banana pudding on holidays, where I learned to call the adults I loved deeply Miss or Mister and then their first name just so they’d know, every time I saw them, how dearly I loved them. It’s the world where I learned when to wear summer white and winter white, where I had so many aunts and uncles that it was sometimes hard to know who I was actually related to, since family went beyond that. It’s the world of my family, of all the love and struggle that word contains, a world of hills ever-tinted green and mountains sliced open to reveal their ribs of iron ore. It’s the world I’ve seen for all of my nearly thirty-three years, and now, it was the world I was seeing as Purpura saw it, and all I could think was no, oh no, no Lia, not you too.

Here’s how it began:

Here is a farmer entering a black field.  He’s a proper farmer, bowlegged and leathery, with a serviceable rope looped over his arm.  But the farmer comes out of a logo’d truck and the rope links up to a ChemLawn can [….] He pisses I don’t know where during his long day in the sun.  His hat’s a tattered, red, GO BAMA cap.

I won’t go on.

God knows I don’t need to: the image of the Southerner as field-hand is common enough, though I’m not sure why it’s derogatory.  It takes a great deal of education and intelligence to work a field, though that matters little, anyway: why should any person’s life turn into an insult? Why can’t a field-hand be smart and kind and generous enough? And why is any person seen somehow as not enough, based on what they do or where they are from?

I read quickly through the rest of the essay, hoping she would transform it, hoping she would give to my home the same kind of miracle her writing had so often given to me, hoping she wouldn’t instead add insult to a town that has so strongly and gracefully dealt with very literal injury (see: the tornadoes of April 2011, almost exactly two years ago now).

Here is how the essay ends:

I wanted to know what happened here, on land like this.
Now I know.
People learn to fly through it.  And then they go home.

Is it too much to say my heart broke?  And more than a little?

On my first reading, I told myself her work had done its trick. I told myself she had turned this place into a metaphor for all places, for the transformative power that could be found every- and anywhere. But on my second read, I was unsettled. I could no longer shake from the language its implication: that the place I call home has worth only as a way-station, not as an end but as a means to teach visitors what they need to know and how not to be — she mentions again, near the end, the man working with fertilizer, her “farmer (okay, working stiff, bare hands in the poison, then wiping his nose).” And if the worth of the place is as a means to teach outsiders, well, then what about insiders?  What about the people who fly in it, and stay there, as home?

The thing about implications like those are that they, simply stated, hurt. They imply that Southerners are unintelligent, are somehow lesser because of where they were born.

I’m not here to deny that the South has a cruel and terrible and terrifying history, which is often not history, in a way that grieves and hurts me.  I’m not here to say the South isn’t complicated, isn’t often a boiling mix of hate and love of appearances.  I’m also not saying that my own relationship with the South isn’t complicated.  I do write as someone who flew away, but also as someone who flew home.  I write as someone who believed that she wasn’t good enough because of where she came from, and wouldn’t be any good unless she moved away. Even as a little girl, I swore that as soon as I turned eighteen, I’d move away. And I did, to New York, where I went to school and found a lot of people who were very kind, but also a lot of people who were very willing to back up all I’d believed.

Take my roommate, who, on day three of my first week as a freshman, admitted she’d cried for weeks when she found out her roommate was from Alabama.

Take the fellow student in my American Social History class who said I didn’t have the right to talk about ethnic groups because I was from the South and therefore had to be prejudiced against them.  We were discussing Irish and Italian immigrants.  My mother’s maiden name is Lanza.

Take all of the professors who asked how I’d learned to read so well and what my people farmed. And take the fact that this was the school I went to after my disastrous interview at another New England school, which began with the admissions director asking if I had had any contact with people of other races or who were part of other ethnic groups, because New England College X prized diversity and worried about admitting a Southerner, since they worried a Southerner wouldn’t – and couldn’t — value diversity.

You might say I’m being oversensitive. Fine. I’m being oversensitive.

But imagine this: you’re at orientation for your first academic job, back in your home state. You spend all day with people who ask if their students will be able to read, and if so, if any of them can read above a grade-school level. They ask if students chew tobacco in the classrooms. They ask if they know how to speak, really, since most people don’t really speak English down here, do they? They sigh and say that they just have to do what they can, and not expect too much. Sit in a room and have everyone joke about how, in Alabama, you have to set your watch back a century instead of an hour. Then, have to tell them you’re from Alabama. Deal with the questions: how can you do this job? I mean, how did you learn to read?

Or go out for a drink with a group of friends. Get pulled into a corner conversation where someone has gotten wine-weepy. She’s crying, she says, because she has to wait until she moves to have children. She doesn’t want her child to be a Southerner. She wants her child to be educated and tolerant and smart, which — it isn’t even implied, it’s said — can’t happen in the South. She doesn’t want a slack-jawed idiot.

Repeat these situations. A lot. As in, on a weekly basis. Sometimes daily. Exchange the players, the sayers. Add some of the men who have said they’re in love with you. Add your dearest, closest friend. Add the writer who changed your life.

Tell me I am oversensitive.

Tell me it doesn’t hurt.

In the end, I think, perhaps Purpura’s essay did transform me.  Perhaps it did teach an important lesson, showing me something new about looking, how once you’ve lived inside something, it’s never easy to look at in one way.  The story becomes multi-faceted, complicated.  Or, perhaps, the story becomes something larger, becomes something that has so little to do with you.

When I think of Tuscaloosa, I look at parts of my own story, parts which, once looked at, become large.  It’s the place where my grandmother spoke her last words to me, where my mother and father watched her die in one of the country’s best Hospice centers, where we were taught about that terrible and beautiful moment when we all must leave our home, this earth, and where it was calm and peaceful and she was allowed to die with dignity. That’s what this place has taught me, and I will fly to it, again and again, as my home.