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 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.

Radio Free Gertrude

Here's my call-in radio show call-in station.  Please note my fourth cup of coffee.  Please also note that telephone.  Children, that's called a "land line."  It's an ancient artifact from the days in which people didn't need everything to be confusing and realized it was totally gross to have your phone with you in the restroom.

Here’s my call-in radio show call-in station. Please note my fourth cup of coffee. Please also note that telephone. Children, that’s called a “land line.” It’s an ancient artifact from the days in which people didn’t need everything to be so terribly confusing and realized it was totally gross to have your phone with you in the restroom.

So, on Friday, I called in as a guest on Katrina Murphy’s excellent radio show, Questions That Bother Me So.  I must thank Katrina for what was, all in all, a totally awesometacular experience (I’m thinking at some point that the archives will pop up here, so keep an eye out) (keep an eye out — that’s a really, really weird thing to say, isn’t it? I mean, if your eye was out, you wouldn’t really be able to see, would you?) (that’s not a tangent, as it keeps with the theme — I mean, if any questions bothers you so, it should probably be that one).

I have to admit that I love talk radio, especially live talk radio.  There’s something about the cadence of the human voice, the magic of language happening in real-time, that’s absolutely captivating.  That is, it is as a listener — while there is a fascination with how you are the human whose voice is cadencing over the Interwebs and the air, and it’s your language that’s happening in real-time, I have to admit that, as a participant, I was a little terrified.

This could be due to the fact that I prepared for my on-air appearance by drinking five cups of coffee and attempting to lure my overly vocal feline companions into other rooms by plying them with treats.  Or it could be due to the fact that I spent all morning obsessively repeating to myself the following mantra: for God’s sake don’t say um and don’t say like, for God’s sake, please.  Or perhaps I was nervous because I was wearing owl pajamas and Muk-Luks, as I often do, because I am a grown woman, which of course I knew no one could actually see, but perhaps they could just sense it.

This is what I suppose Alice B. Toklas was doing when I was talking, when she wasn't creeping out the neighbors or eating a table or something.

This is what I suppose Alice B. Toklas was doing when I was talking, when she wasn’t creeping out the neighbors or eating a stack of firewood or something.

Thankfully, I was in very good hands, and Katrina calmed my nerves immediately.  Gertrude Stein, who’s part Siamese and really loves to talk about that, did make her way into the living room, but somehow managed not to meow and to only bite me once.  Alice B. Toklas, thankfully, held to her belief that watching whatever the neighbors are doing and chewing on cardboard boxes is way more interesting than anything I’m up to.  And I found myself letting go of my fear and just having a great time talking to someone — which is also, I think, why I love talk radio so much: it’s like eavesdropping, at its best, on a really juicy conversation.

Gertrude Stein decided to help me with the poem I needed to read.

Gertrude Stein decided to help me with the poem I needed to read.

I think that part of my nervousness, too, has to do with the fact that in conversation, I’m not very focused.  That’s because everything is interesting.  Seriously.  I could talk for three hours about the Statesboro formal wear store, Frills and Fancies, on the corner of Main, Main, Main, and Main, and then for six more hours about how, in Statesboro, there’s a corner of Main, Main, Main, and Main.  Every single detail — from the revolving mannequin in a feathered prom dress to the fact that their Hunger Games-themed prom window display seemed to be made Hunger Games-themed only by the edition of an old-fashioned big screen TV — is interesting to me.  That’s largely why, I think, I was drawn to writing in the first place: in writing, every such detail has a place.  It has a weight and a significance and it works with other details to build an entirely new world.  And I think, too, this lack of focus is why I was drawn in particular to poetry: it’s a form that, by its very nature, demands focus.  It’s a way I learned to sift through the details I collect every day and weigh their significance.  It’s how I learned to learn from them, and how I learned to focus enough to find the words to show other people what I’ve learned.

And if I end up with a collection titled Frills and Fancies, well, now you know why.

Gertrude and I.  Sigh.

Gertrude and I. Sigh.

Dear Mr. Coffee

Dear Mr. Coffee,
I have, yet again, felt the terror of your hatred and disdain.

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At this point, it’s all too clear: we have grown apart, and so have our wants and needs.

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It’s over, Mr. Coffee. I wish you the best. And no, we cannot be friends.

Good luck with your future endeavors at the Humane Society Thrift Shop.

Sincerely,
Emma