Old? Outta Here. New? Come On In.

A little while ago, someone asked me what my year had been like.  I said, “It was the worst year of my life, but it was pretty good.”

And that’s about right.  2013 was, if not the worst year of my life, the most difficult year of my life.  I faced my greatest fears, my hardest decisions; I found myself in unimaginable circumstances.  At the same time, though, I did face my greatest fear.  I did make my hardest decisions.  And I did make it through all of the circumstances that 2013 brought my way – and I survived.

Though this year was unimaginably difficult, I made it, with the help of friends and family.  And I’m a far better person for it, and far better at appreciating my friends and family – and the smallest, most routine, everyday things.  That’s why I can say this was a pretty good year – and really, I should say it was a really good year.  I faced my greatest fears, but I also faced my greatest dreams, with the publication of my first full-length book.  I made my hardest decisions, but I had friends and family there to help, and I was a stronger person for it.  I found myself in unimaginable circumstances, but sometimes they were unimaginably good circumstances – from having the honor of teaching brilliant, hard-working students to reaching some of my biggest writing-related goals.

I usually do a wrap-up entry at the end/beginning of every year, but I’m finding it difficult to approach 2013 in any of my usual ways.  A list of achievements seems like the wrong way to go about things, because the year wasn’t really about those achievements – and the same thing goes for the defeats, or just the negative things that happened.  I thought about some kind of itemized list, but that didn’t seem right, either – this was the kind of year that went beyond the number of Cipro tablets I took or the number of hospitals I visited or the number of words I wrote.  Then I thought that I’d write a little bit about what I learned this year, and that seemed just about right – if there’s one thing I learned this year, it’s that learning is the most important thing.

Gather Ye Rosebuds Every Day: Listen.  I’m a poet.  I’m moody and angsty.  Most of my clothes are black and I wear a lot of scarves.  Obviously, I’m not one who typically goes for happy-happy-positivity supposedly-life-changing things.  That being said, I totally started doing this happy-happy-positivity thing this year and it was life-changing.  Every day, no matter how moody and angsty and black and scarved the day was, I made myself write down three positive things.  Sometimes they were very small positive things, like “managed to eat mashed potatoes,” “didn’t get stopped at that one red light,” and “realized sweater was on backwards before class.”  But I learned that even the smallest positives mattered, and I learned how easy it is to turn my attention away from the bad and towards the good.

Learn How To Do New Things: This year was the year that I got serious about crochet, and though this basically makes me a grandmother, it was still a great thing for me.  I’m not the most co-ordinated person in the world, so it took me a while to figure out what the instructions and crochet maps (no, seriously – there are these weird little MAPS that show you how to make things with yarn and a hook — I’m not making this up) were telling me to do.  But I kept working until I figured it out, and I learned how to solve problems and that even if I have to undo all of my stitches, I still learned something.

Learn New Ways of Doing Things:  I spent a lot of this year in bed, either because I was told to stay there or because I was nasty sick.  Sometimes I had my laptop or a notebook by my bed.  Sometimes I didn’t.  I learned to write on different surfaces – paper, iPhone, Kindle, receipts, my own hand — and in different ways – jotting down notes, typing, writing it all out long-hand.  That probably sounds like it isn’t a big thing, but it was major for me.  I have a lot of trouble with fine motor skills some days, and this helped me to figure out ways around that.  It also introduced new possibilities into my writing – in fact, Kindle’s predictive text feature helped me to write the poem that became my second full-length collection.

Sometimes Rest Is The Most Important Thing To Do, And Also Quiet Is Very Important: I’m usually doing something all of the time I’m awake, from writing to Swiffering to crocheting to grading, and this year, I learned that sometimes resting is every bit as important as – if not more important than – doing.  Some ideas need incubation, and some things need a lot of still and quiet time.

No Is Sometimes A Better Answer Than Yes: I realized this year that I’m kind of bad at saying no, or at least not saying yes.  I try to do everything all of the time for everyone forever, and a lot of times, I just run myself into the ground and sometimes, I make a mess.  I realized that saying no to doing all of the things means that I do a better job with some of the things.

Never Underestimate The Power Of Beyoncé: She sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker.

Be A Little Kinder Than You Need To Be: I know, I know.  That’s a total cliché.  It is such a total cliché that it was actually painful to type.  My scarf tried to stop it.  But it’s true, and especially true of the Internet: as the year progressed, the online world seemed to become an angrier and angrier place to me.  Then I realized that I was the biggest part of that problem, because I kept looking at things that made me angry and reacting in an angry way.  I realized that if I just shut down the computer, I felt better.  So much better that I started limiting my time online and stopped responding angrily.  I started asking myself how I would feel if I was the other person in the situation.  And I realized that this life thing is very difficult, and we are all doing our best with it.  We are all, all the time, fighting so very much that the last thing we (I’m saying “we” but including – actually, mostly meaning – “I” here) need to do is fight each other, especially over something as small as a Facebook post.  Kindness is the only thing we owe each other.

And that seemed right – so right that I’ll end this entry with that thought, and with the hope that it’ll carry me through 2014.

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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.

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

When Life Throws Lemons At Your Face, Smash Those Bastards Up And Make A Cocktail

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.

To say that a lot has been going on would be an understatement.  Lately, life has been — well, it’s basically like Life started throwing lemons at me, and then I was like, Awesome!  Lemons!  Hey, thanks, Life, and I made a ton of lemonade, which is delicious and, incidentally, prevents kidney stones.  Two birds, one citrus fruit.  But then Life was like, Oh hell no, and started lobbing grapefruit at me, and I was like, WTF Life? Grapefruit are never delicious, except with mounds of sugar or vodka, both of which would ruin my low-carb diet, and besides, even the OED doesn’t know the plural of the word “grapefruit,” so how I am even supposed to talk about this?  And then Life gave me this creepy Joker-esque grin and lobbed two grapefruit(s) directly at my face.

Thanks a lot, Life.

And so I have turned to what I always turn to in times like these: organizational projects that

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

are so obsessive that they probably show up somewhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I tend to not talk about them until they’re finished and people will say things like You are so organized! Good for you! instead of Hey, Emma, would you like to go get a cup of coffee and have a conversation, perhaps about how nice it would be to hang out for a while in a calming, white, padded room where someone comes in three times a day with a Dixie cup of pills?  

Now that my projects are nearly finished, I feel better about blogging and talking about them, though I admit that a padded room would probably be a

good idea because let’s face it, I’m really clumsy and walls are hard.  I separated the books I need for teaching from the books I need for home reading (and listen, there are a lot of both.  I’m pretty sure everyone in the world who works for a moving company regularly wakes up screaming after a nightmare about my books) and took them to my office, and organized the rest according to the spectrum (which I’m pretty sure shows up on page 46 of the DSM-IV).*  I built a cabinet for my sewing supplies and filed my fat quarters according to color (DSM-IV, page 72).  I developed a color-coded filing system in a series of binders, complete with plastic sleeves to hold spare items that can’t be hole-punched, like pattern pieces and receipts and all ten thousand of my cats’ rabies shot collars, which I’m pretty sure just gave both of my cats super-angry cases of rabies (for color-coding and plastic

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

sleeves, see DSM-IV page 52; for paranoia about super-angry cat rabies, see

page 12).

The organizational projects have helped a lot: not only am I now able to actually find that handout about Dean Young’s lecture on surrealism and quickly locate the perfect red calico to complete my current hexie quilt stripe**, I actually feel like I have some control over at least some part of my life.  Obsessive, hole-punched, color-coded, magnificent control.

As a writer and a teacher, I admit that I look for metaphors in everything, and hole-punching and color-coding is no exception.  It all goes back to the lemons, really.  Here’s the thing about Life: it’s going to lob lemons at your forehead, and grapefruit(s) and ugli fruit(s) and kumquats and tangelos and whatever else Life can find in its produce aisle.  The only thing you can do is put concealer over your bruises, pick up the

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

citrus fruit(s) fallen and themselves bruised by your feet, and make one helluva citrus punch.  And that’s going to be messy — you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, get out the knives and the juicer, and pulverize a bunch of lemons.  But when you’re done, you’ll have a beautiful pitcher of a refreshing citrus cocktail — and sometimes, when Life seems unfaceble and no action seems possible, sitting back and sipping on a cool citrus beverage is the best action you can take.

Especially if you add mounds of sugar and vodka.

*NOTE: I have no actual knowledge about the DSM-IV, so if you do and you’re thinking to yourself Hmm, page 46 is actually the page about women who watch too much Dateline and think Britney Spears is a feminist icon, sort of like a contemporary version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that’s totally just a coincidence.

** NOTE THE SECOND: I also probably have no actual knowledge about actual quilting or actual quilting terminology, so this might not at all be what this is called.  For information about actual quilting and/or actual quilting terminology, I suggest that you refer to this book, WHICH ACTUALLY EXISTS:

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT.  NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine's Day.  YOU'RE WELCOME.

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT. NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine’s Day. YOU’RE WELCOME.