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.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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.

“And on the radio you hear ‘November Rain;’ that solo’s awful long, but it’s got a good refrain.”*

People of the Interwebs:

Listen.

It’s April fourth.  I live in south Georgia.  Like, coastal south Georgia.  And it’s cold.  It’s cold and awful and rainy and generally so terrible weather-wise that Gertrude Stein has been inspired to spend all day and night singing her “Cold and Awful and Rainy and Generally So Terrible

This is a picture of Gertrude Stein, taken as I type.  She's this close to my face.  And singing.  It's a lot to deal with.

This is a picture of Gertrude Stein, taken as I type. She’s this close to my face. And singing. It’s a lot to deal with.

Weather” aria, which is the saddest song in Gertrude Stein’s entire repertoire, besides the “You Didn’t Set You Alarm and I Realize You Want to Sleep In But Hey, Treats?” aria.

However, it’s April.  It’s National Poetry Month, and if poetry celebrates anything, it’s anything that’s cold and awful.  Therefore, I’m making the best of the weather and looking for the best in today — and one of the best things is this announcement: I’m going to be on the radio tomorrow.

No, really.  Someone is actually going to let me talk on the radio without the FCC present.

That someone is the wonderful and talented and generally amazing Katrina Murphy, who’s invited me to join her on her wonderful and talent-filled and generally amazing radio show, Questions That Bother Me So.  The show will stream live tomorrow from 1:00 – 3:00 Eastern time (I think — Eastern time, right?  Like the one that the East coast is on?  Time zones are confusing and I can’t think about them too much because I start thinking about how time is just a construct and then I get confused).  You can listen along here (go to “shows,” then “Questions That Bother Me So”), and I’ll be live-Tweeting the experience from my Twitter feed.  There will also be a chat room.  It’s going to be totally meta.  Topics to be discussed may or may not include poetry, National Poetry Month, Maleficae, witches, witch trials, witch burnings, writing poetry about witch trials and burnings, cats, velociraptors, sloths, and more poetry.  It’s going to be awesome.  The last time I was on the radio, I had pink eye and a kidney stone, and I still managed not to drop an F-bomb, which was a major triumph, as you know if you’ve ever had a kidney stone or, like, been in a room with me.  This time, I probably also have a kidney stone, but hey, no pink eye.  Let the F-bombless awesome commence.

And there are other exciting things afoot, so please keep your eyes on this small section of the Intertubes.  In the meantime, here are some pictures of how I tried to make the best out of this gray and cold and awful day.

If there's one thing I'm very good at, it's losing my reading glasses. I had a gorgeous green pair that I left somewhere in the Charlotte airport, or possibly on an airplane.  Or somehow in the sky.  I still miss them.  I was thrilled when I came into my classroom today and found that my glasses were still where I apparently left them on Tuesday.  Rainy day triumph number ONE.

If there’s one thing I’m very good at, it’s losing my reading glasses. I had a gorgeous green pair that I left somewhere in the Charlotte airport, or possibly on an airplane. Or somehow in the sky. I still miss them. I was thrilled when I came into my classroom today and found that my glasses were still where I apparently left them on Tuesday. Rainy day triumph number ONE.

Seriously, the weather today? TERRIBLE.  I decided to make the best of it by making it into an exercise.  My students had to complete this sentence -- "The weather was ____" -- fifteen times.  If they used weather words, like cold and rainy and awful, they had to use a simile.  I did the exercise along with them and ended up with my poem for today.  RAINY DAY TRIUMPH TWO.

Seriously, the weather today? TERRIBLE. I decided to make the best of it by making it into an exercise. My students had to complete this sentence — “The weather was ____” — fifteen times. If they used weather words, like cold and rainy and awful, they had to use a simile. I did the exercise along with them and ended up with my poem for today. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH TWO.

A few months ago, Alice took this Purr Pad out of a chair and pushed it across the room, right next to the front door. Today I found out why: she sits here to wait for me to get home from work. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH THREE.  CUTENESS TRIUMPH INFINITY.

A few months ago, Alice took this Purr Pad out of a chair and pushed it across the room, right next to the front door. Today I found out why: she sits here to wait for me to get home from work. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH THREE. CUTENESS TRIUMPH INFINITY.

Chinese take-out once again proves it's the best boyfriend ever.  RAINY DAY TRIUMPH FOUR. Well, plus Chinese food in general, and food that's delivered to the door, both of which are always triumphs.

Chinese take-out once again proves it’s the best boyfriend ever. RAINY DAY TRIUMPH FOUR. Well, plus Chinese food in general, and food that’s delivered to the door, both of which are always triumphs.

* Bonus points to anyone who catches the reference in this post’s title!