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.

Houses are jerks.

This blog has been on hiatus.  I’m sorry.  There have been circumstances.

I’ll be back from hiatus very, very soon, but in the meantime, here’s a poem of mine published in B O D Y.  The poem is about houses and how they know way too much about the people who live inside of them.  I’m really happy to have this poem published because it’s one of those gifts, one of those poems that feels like it comes out of no where, a poem that’s completely unplanned but alters the course of your work.  That’s absolutely true of this poem.  Though it was the first poem in what would become a lengthy series, which then became the backbone of the manuscript I’m putting together, I have no idea where it came from.

Really.

See? See what I mean here?  This house?  Totally a secret-blabbing jerk.

See? See what I mean here? This house? Totally a secret-blabbing jerk.

I mean, I really have no idea where this poem came from.  It just appeared.  I suppose that my mind has been working on it for quite some time.  I’ve always been fascinated with houses — I’m not sure how anyone who’s driven around at night and accidentally looked into an accidentally-still-standing-with-the-lights-on-and-without-the-blinds-drawn window isn’t fascinated with houses.  They seem like such solid, impenetrable structures by day — they seem trustworthy, willing and able to keep all of your secrets — and then, by night — no way.  Leave a single one of them without the blinds drawn, and that house is telling everyone what you’re doing inside.  This is a problem, obviously, because I think it’s pretty obvious that we as a species began building and living inside of houses so we could walk around at night in extra-extra large t-shirts, knock-around-shorts, and knee socks, singing songs with lyrics

Gertrude Stein appears not to have the same anxieties about houses, possibly because she'd just be embarrassed by me.

Gertrude Stein appears not to have the same anxieties about houses, possibly because she’d just be embarrassed by me.

altered to feature your cats’ names and hobbies, eating frosting out of cans and watching Snapped marathons (all of that is completely hypothetical, of course.  Completely, totally, absolutely hypothetical.  I mean, who would do any of that?  Certainly completely, totally, and absolutely not me).

It’s possible that my mind has been rock-tumbling these ideas around for a while, without my knowledge, and polished them into a poem.  Much as I’ll never know the source of most of my ideas and decisions, I’ll never really know.  All I know is that I was in the middle of a Grind and wondering if I’d actually be able to finish the month, and then the poem appeared to answer my wondering.  It was a pleasant surprise, and I’m happy to have received it — and happier still that the good people at B O D Y liked it and wanted to share it.

(While you’re at B O D Y, by the way, you should check out fellow Grinders Ross White and Matthew Olzmann, two incredibly talented and all-around awesome poets whose work has inspired me and then inspired me again.)

The Story Behind “The Damage”

Today, one of my dreams came true, and I say that without exaggeration: a piece of mine, from Inch magazine, is featured today on Poetry Daily.  I found out about this a while ago but didn’t really believe it was actually happening until I saw it today, and I’ve had to look at it again and again to make sure that I’m not just dreaming.  I mean, I’m not, right?  You can see it too?

Here's a picture of the beheaded cherub.  I miss it, still.

Here’s a picture of the beheaded cherub. I miss it, still.

I thought I’d write a short blog entry about the piece, since I’m always curious about the poems that pop up on Poetry Daily and, well, like, everywhere that poems tend to pop up.  I won’t tell the whole story behind it because a.) I already did that, and b.) then where will the mystery be?  Suffice it to say that the story behind this involves a huge move, which is a new beginning, and a huge break-up, which is, of course, an ending.  Besides the relationship, a few things were broken during or missing after the move: a couch cushion, my bicycle, and the head of a cherub on this terrible and beautiful planter my grandmother had used as storage for cotton balls.  It was a strange time, a time when beginnings were muddled with endings, and I could hardly tell the difference between the two anymore.

Flash to September of 2012, over a year later.  A friend and I had just finished a stint on The Grind (explained beautifully here by Grind founder Ross White) and were following it up with a submissions grind.  We promised each other that we’d send out at least one piece a day.  One Saturday, I was poking around for places to submit short essays and I came across Press 53, (which, as it turns out, published a remarkable collection by fellow Grinder and all-around amazing poet and person, Shivani Mehta — Useful Information for the Soon-to-be- Beheaded) and then Press 53’s Tumblr, with their weekly 53-word story prompt.  The prompt for that week was to write a 53-word story about moving.  I read the prompt and the rules and then promptly shut down my computer and headed to Hobby Lobby for some emergency crafting supplies (the emergency, as always with Hobby Lobby, was just that it was Saturday, and they’re closed on Sundays, which always sends me into a crafting/quilting/crocheting tail-spin — what if I need very fine glitters on a Sunday?  It happens more often than one would think).  As I wandered around trying to figure out why there were so giant zebra-striped flowers, I found that my mind was working on a poem.  When I got home, I wrote it: and word count showed me that it was, miraculously, 55 words.  I cut two, and submitted it.  Boom.

Of course, the micro-essay (though I guess now I should probably call it a prose poem) was rejected.  I revised and sent to another magazine.  Rejected.  Repeat.  Rejected.  Then, I saw a call-for-work for an all-micro-essay issue of Inch, one of my favorite magazines, and I sent to that.  Miraculously, it was accepted — and so began the road to Poetry Daily.  I’m especially happy that this is the poem that made it, since Inch is a journal I really love and a journal that shines light on oft-ignored micro-forms, and since they were willing to give this triply-rejected piece a fourth chance.

Sometimes, I’ll end up with a poem or essay that just feels like a gift.  It feels like a well-made thing, though I don’t feel like its maker.  This poem/essay was just such a thing: I hadn’t intended to write about this part of my move — ever, really — and I didn’t set out to focus on the beheaded cherub.  But there it was, and then it was on the page, called into being by forces which didn’t seem entirely under my control.

I suppose, when I think about it, it does make sense that I wrote this poem at this time.  It was a time when everything seemed to be changing, again.  My relationships changed, my friendships changed, my health changed and therefore my body changed, and therefore my world and the way I lived in it changed.  I didn’t make a move, but the world around me moved.  It was a time of muddled beginnings and endings, and I again couldn’t tell which was which.  It was the beginning of a moment of great change, from which I am only now starting to emerge, to look around, and to assess what was damaged beyond repair and what remains.

And this, I suppose, is the greater gift, the greater dream come true: to have a poem that acts like a lens and focuses on what damage is, and what beginning and ending, for me at least, really means.

Are There Things That Are Important Beyond All This Fiddle? Or NaPoWriMo and You

People, here’s the thing: it’s April.  That means it’s National Poetry Month.  That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month.  That means I’m writing a poem a day.  That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.

NaPoWriMo FTW!

NaPoWriMo FTW!

And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.

Publicly.

As in, where everyone can see.

Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach.  Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong.  I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well.  And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student.  I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.

Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well.  They taught very, very well because, well, they did.  And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing.  My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were.  They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me.  And from their thinking, I learned how to think.  From their writing, I learned how to write.  And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing.  Do and do and do.  Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that?  That’s not easy.  Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes.  Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room.  Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.

Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included.  When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand.  I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail.  I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny.  They weren’t spontaneous.  They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other

This is how I know my writing's going well.

This is how I know my writing’s going well.

side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response.  I didn’t know what to do.

All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it.  One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me.  I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.

Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom.  Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable.  I realized that in order to teach, I had to do.  I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write.  I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter.  I’d be wrong.  I’d fail.  And I’d recover.  I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?

Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see.  Sometimes, I will falter.  The poems will go wrong.  They’ll fail.  I’ll recover.  And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.

AWP: Traditions, Revisions, Permissions (Or I’m Okay, You’re Okay, Let’s Skip The Dance Party)

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference and Bookfair (henceforth known as AWP) has been over for, like, a while now, which means it’s time for the tradition of Very Belated Wrap-Ups of Events that Probably Don’t Really Need Wrap-Ups, Or at Least Wrap-Ups by Emma Bolden, Since There Are Far Better and More Timely Wrap-Ups Out There in the Intertubes, Let’s Be Honest to continue.  But first, a disclaimer.

DISCLAIMER: I hate AWP.

Okay, that’s a little extreme.  I usually hate AWP, but I also usually hate doing things like picking out fruit and vegetables at the grocery store (I mean,

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel.  I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn't guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

This is the map of AWP I made while I was waiting for a panel. I accidentally skipped a letter because apparently being a writer and working with the alphabet every day doesn’t guarantee that you actually know the alphabet, at least not in order.

really, why is this so difficult?  Why isn’t there a central method for testing for fruit and vegetable freshness?  Why must I smell mangoes and thump other fruit?  And why can’t I remember which fruits must be thumped?) that are ultimately very good for me.

Maybe the problem is that I came late to AWP.  I never went when I was in graduate school, and so I started attending AWPs when I already had a job in academia and enough rejection slips to Dementor-suck all the joy from my tender, hopeful heart.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that AWP has always left me feeling overly exhausted and inadequate and like I would never make it anywhere, ever, so much so that I wished I could just throw all the swag I got at the Bookfair out of the airplane window and then go back to school for something else, like gardening or slothology.

Or maybe it’s the kinds of panels I attended back in the day, when my mailbox regularly belched out rejection slips (that’s a disgusting image but it was totally necessary) and I stood and looked at them and despaired, knowing they meant that I would never, ever, ever get a job with more than a three-year contract and less than seventeen thousand classes.  Maybe I chose panels based on my desperation, based on my desire for someone, anyone, anywhere, to unfold in front of me the map with the pathways to “Acceptances Instead of Rejections!” and “Permanent Job with Insurance!” and “Not Endings Up in Someone’s Attic Dressed All in White with Ten Thousand Cats and Their Ten Quadrillion Fleas!” marked clearly.

At this point in my life, I know there is no such map (there is no such map, right? Right? And, um, if there is, can you get me a copy?) — or, at least, no universal map.  There’s just the path we each tread, in our own lives, in our own ways, to our own lives and ways.

At previous AWPs, though, I didn’t know that, and so I hung desperately on every word from every member of every panel, every writer I passed hustling from table to table in the Bookfair, every man and woman handing out business cards and manuscripts and cocktails and questions.  What I ended up with, what exhausted me so much, was a series of directions that I could never follow: you have to go to these parties, these conferences, these retreats; you have to get these residencies and publish in these magazines and get this kind of job at this kind of institution and wear this kind of Chucks while you’re doing it; don’t publish chapbooks, publish full-lengths; publish your full-length before you apply for a tenure-track; on Mondays you wear colored shoes, Tuesdays shirts with cute slogans, Wednesdays pink … It was overwhelming.  To say the least.

But this year, things just felt different.  There were a lot of writers, and all of the writers were — well, different.  From each other.  Sure, the majority of us were probably academics, but there were people with day jobs, people who wrote for money, people who did nothing that had anything to do with writing for work.  There were people who went straight to the full-length and others who started their writing careers through e-mail lists.  Suddenly, there were many, many maps, and many, many people being more honest about the maps they used, how they got where they are and how they earn the money they need to stay there.  At one panel, Steve Almond mentioned that the old adage that time is money is especially true when it comes to writing: you work to finance the time you need to write, and, as a writer, you have to do what you have to do.

I think, perhaps, that’s what made this AWP feel so different to me.  In the end, that’s the one thing about which everyone agreed: the writing is what’s important.  Not the press, not the position, not the invitations to attend secret and exclusive hotel room parties or to sit with The Plastics for a trial week.  It was all about the work, the real work we all come home to do, the real work in which we all find our homes — and, as I flew back to Georgia, I found myself smiling as I flipped through my notes.  And if I could make a cake made of rainbows and smiles, we could all eat a piece and be happy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUFT35S7Jb4