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.

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The Photobiography of Alice B. Toklas

People of the Internets, here’s the thing. Or, rather, here are the things. Whichever. So.

1. Circumstances persist.
2. Therefore, my hiatus also persists.
3. One great wish persists through circumstances and hiatus, and that is to have famous cats.
4. Therefore and thusly, I thought I’d take a brief break from my break to make a brief but incredibly important update.
About my cats.  Because this is the Internet, after all.

This is a story about Alice B. Toklas, and this story about Alice B. Toklas begins when Alice B. Toklas decided that she was tired of me petting her because I always, somehow, am doing it wrong.  She pushed my arm away to let me know just how wrongly I was doing it.

This is a story about Alice B. Toklas, and this story about Alice B. Toklas begins when Alice B. Toklas decided that she was tired of me petting her because I always, somehow, am doing it wrong. She pushed my arm away to let me know just how wrongly I was doing it.

However, she soon ran into a problem.

She decided to stay there, pushing my arm away, just in case I got any more ideas about doing anything else wrong. However, she soon ran into a problem.

A sleepy, sleepy problem.

A sleepy, sleepy problem.

And then she fell asleep, sitting up, pushing my arms away, snoring, and singing.

And then she fell asleep, sitting up, pushing my arms away, snoring, and singing.

Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein rolled around on the carpet in a fury of smouldering rage.

Meanwhile, Gertrude Stein rolled around on the carpet in a fury of planet-vaporizing rage.

The End.

Now we should all go read some of the leaked lyrics from Yeezus because, people, Kanye West raps about croissants like he means it.

 

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.)