Writing Motherhood

DSCI0158Last weekend was the Bay Area Book Fest (BABF) here in my adopted hometown, and amidst a sea of birthday parties and other end-of-year commitments, I managed to hit two sessions: Rebecca Solnit speaking with John Freeman on Sunday morning, and a panel called “Writers on Motherhood” on Saturday morning. Both the sessions I attended left me brimming with ideas and feeling like a part of a world that’s exciting, intellectually stimulating, and full—even though, you know, I have a kid.

Yes! At the “Writers on Motherhood” panel, there was a lot of honest talk about how the writers presenting (Rivka Galchen, Sarah Manguso, and Rachel Richardson) had, before they had children, thought of motherhood as something for other people. When they reluctantly decided to become mothers (only after each had at least one book out) they approached it with a certain degree of dread and the assumption that their lives would end. (Galchen admitted that she thought/hoped her daughter would be like a plant that you tend gently for a few years and that eventually grows into something that you can relate to.) The realities of motherhood—the sleeplessness, the sensation of springing milk at every moment, the unwelcome advice and comments from strangers, and the way, as Sarah Manguso said, one’s entire relationship to time and space shifts, was unexpected, and at first unwelcome. But ultimately, each of the writers realized that motherhood is, in fact, interesting. It’s not all diapers and laundry and feeding schedules; there’s something inherently stimulating and intellectually engaging about being so in the service of another human being.

And each of them began to write about it.

Perhaps it was this affirmation—that motherhood is in fact interesting and worthy of being written about—that most appealed to me about this panel. It’s no news that the word “domestic” has been thrown around as an insult for years, that writing about motherhood and marriage has been seen as less important than writing about, say, seafaring, conquering, and hunting. This is garden-variety sexism, sure, but it’s also somehow about privacy, and how what happens in the home has been seen as less significant than what happens in the outside world. But in recent years a lot of serious, talented writers have been writing about the private spaces of motherhood, reclaiming it as a subject worthy of literature. If you haven’t yet read Emma Donoghue’s Room, or Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, or Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, or Monica Wesolowska’s Holding Silvan, or any of the books by the three women who presented at BABF—then get thee to your local library post-haste.

And at the same time, more and more women have been speaking out about how questions about parenting and the domestic are frequently and unfairly lobbied at mothers who write but not at fathers who write. Just check out the recent New Yorker interview with novelist Lauren Groff, who says:

I’d made the decision before the boys were born that I was going to feel no guilt or shame about my parenting. I’m a good mother and want to spend as much time as possible with my kids, but I travel a lot, I shut myself away from my family to work every day, I do not do birthday parties, and I went to one play-date in my life and wanted to break the Perrier bottle on the floor and stab myself with it. We have intense conversations in my house about apportioning responsibility, because neither my husband nor I wants to assume roles based on messed-up collective assumptions about gender dynamics. I think that, in our society, the idea of motherhood is pathologically ill, and even well-meaning people assume martyrdom in a mother. Guilt and shame are the tools used to keep people in line; the questions I get most at readings or in interviews are about being a mother and writer…I think people are mostly kind and don’t know that, when they ask these questions of women, they are asking us to perform a kind of ceremonial subjection—that we’re not allowed our achievements without first denigrating ourselves or saying, with a sigh, “Yes, that’s correct, I’m a writer and a mother, and it’s so hard, and, no, I don’t do it well.” The truth is, doing these things is hard because being a good parent is always hard, but the difficulty of parenting is separate from the difficulty of work.

I think this is just brilliant, and more than that, it’s radical. When Groff says she doesn’t do birthday parties, and when Kim Brooks talks about cutting out the “white noise” of parenting, each is making a powerful statement about not succumbing to prescribed gender roles that assume that the mother in the family—assuming there is one, or only one—will handle all the extraneous bits and pieces of parenting, including those birthday parties and soccer practices and playdates and endless school commitments. Saying no is requesting, and requiring, a shift in all of our thinking.

And so, it seems to me, one of the most radical things a writer-mother can do in the 21st century? Write about being a mother, and be unflinching about it.

This is great news for me, because I’ve realized that motherhood is a subject I really can’t get away from. Mothering Leo creeps into everything I write: into the novel I’m writing about a woman who has no intention of being a mother becoming one anyway; into blog posts like this one; even into my Tweets (recent example):

Screenshot 2016-06-06 09.49.12And when a guy I hired to help me with some aspects of my writing life read all of my stuff, his first comment was that I write about motherhood.

“I do?” I asked. “But I have that one essay about dating the guy with schizophrenia. And a memoir about anxiety.”

“Sure,” he said, “there are outliers, but a mother has all kinds of other experiences besides parenting, right?”

Ah, right. We do.

It’s funny, when I came home from the “Writers on Motherhood” panel and tried to explain to B what was so wonderful about it, I faltered. It was something about what I’ve been writing about here, about being reminded that it’s okay to write about being a parent; good, even. But it was also about seeing three really smart women talking about the seriousness of their writing. It felt a little like being in graduate school again, when I carried around with me, for three years, this belief that writing was the most important thing on the planet. It was wonderful to feel that again for a minute, to get the references to books I’ve read, the references to craft, to forget for a minute that I had to go home and make lunch for a six-year-old. It seems a little ironic to have enjoyed the panel for that stark reminder, but there it was: our lives have changed since writing was the most important thing. Now, as mothers, our children have eked into first place.

So how do we reconcile that? In part, by writing about it.


Stay tuned for my brand-new website and blog More Than a Mother, coming soon!

I Will Not Waste My Life Part Two, OR: Inviting My Kid to A Friend’s House on a Sunday Morning in a Desperate Effort to Write

Long time.

The Kid and Me

The Kid and Me

It’s almost the end of National Poetry Month and I haven’t even posted one poem. This time of year is a killer: taxes, mid-terms, spring soccer, and a rash of birthday parties. Why were so many children born between February and April? And why do they all adore my son and want him to come for cake, ice cream, and super-fun activities that I’m sure I will never be able to measure up to come July, when L turns seven? (Though the climbing gym was pretty great.)

I’ve been remembering the post I wrote a year ago about Not Wasting My Life. I’m still fighting that good fight, but I’m also facing a lot of questions about what an unwasted life is supposed to look like. Should I be making lots of time to lie in the hammock, enjoy L, take long walks, and meditate—can you even imagine?!—or should I be working every spare minute on my writing, when I’m not being the best mother, teacher, and wife I can be?

I was sucked into this recent article in The Cut by Kim Brooks called “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mom: Is Domestic Life the Enemy of Creative Work?”, in which Brooks describes her slow-dawning realization that it’s impossible to be a great mother, a domestic Goddess, and a dedicated writer. As she says, “Surely, I thought, there was no reason in the 21st century that a person like myself couldn’t be a great wife, a great mother, and also the sort of obsessive, depressive, distracted writer whose persona I’d always romanticized…I was so confident in this conviction, in fact, that it took me almost a decade to admit to myself that I was wrong.”

And if that sounds like a crazy thing to think, well, welcome to my head.

Brooks goes on to detail many things, including the number of terrific contemporary novels that take up this theme; and, most poignantly for me, her decision to cut out what she calls “the white noise of parenthood,” e.g., playdates, birthday parties, dance lessons, soccer, PTA, and swim class, in order to create more space for her creative work.

I read this as I was sitting at L’s Friday afternoon soccer practice, as it happens, an experience that, while mildly pleasant because it’s been sunny, and there’s another mom I like to talk to, and I’m happy for L that he’s got a great coach and seems to be learning a lot of good skills, is also a bummer—a bummer because we used to have leisurely Friday afternoons together at home, L doing his thing and me doing mine, until soccer practice became Another Thing We Have to Do.

I was already feeling a bit like the weird parent on the sidelines because I was distracted, watching L run drills just occasionally, immersed in my three-inch thick novel, a notebook and pen furtively stashed in my bag, when I turned to Twitter to see what was up. When I found the link to this article, I absolutely sank in—I basically swallowed my phone. I’m sure I was nodding my head emphatically and groaning like a crazy person. Because to say I can relate to the dilemma Brooks describes is an understatement. I live it. I nearly shouted out loud when I got the part in the essay where she quotes her writer friend Zoe Zolbrod:

“The truth,” [Zolbrod] says, “is that I think I’m a better mom when I’m not writing. I’m not writing right now and I’m enjoying the kids more. I’m better at home when I’m writing less.” When she’s engrossed in her work, it’s different. “My eyes glaze over or something when I’m going off into that other place, and my daughter notices it and doesn’t like it. Like we’re sitting on the floor coloring together. And I’m getting in my zoned-out space and she’s always watching to see when I do that. ‘Don’t make your face like that,’ she says. She just watches me really closely, and she’s less satisfied with what I can’t give her. She senses that I’m keeping something to myself. It never feels like it’s enough.”

I have written before about this dilemma, about this constant feeling of distraction and how I would love, at the end of the day, to actually feel done. To not be off in another place—writing a scene in my novel, or absorbed in my anxiety about getting published—when, actually, I’m with my husband and kid. But I don’t think, crazy as this may sound, that I realized that in order to lessen this sensation I could just say no—to a birthday party, or soccer practice, or piano lessons, or any number of other (arguably optional) parental obligations, in favor of myself, in favor of the selfishness a writing career demands.

As the late Philip Seymour Hoffman says in The Big Lebowski: “That had not occurred to me, dude.”

Had it really not? I mean, of course it had, in that abstract, not-possible way we think of so many possible changes we could make in our lives. I’m not totally crazy; I haven’t volunteered for a PTA board position or anything. But nonetheless, I have always been a little too ambitious, in small and perhaps, let’s face it, probably gender-prescribed ways. When I was in grad school, living alone, I did not subsist on ramen noodles; I cooked myself intricate meals every night, because it brought me pleasure, of course, and because it quelled my anxiety to eat well. And now, with a kid, a husband, and a full-time teaching gig, I still cook those kinds of meals, almost every night. I make my own granola too, and bone broth a few times a month, and while we have a house cleaner, she only comes once every month or six weeks. And somehow I became the room partner in my kid’s class when the other parent decided to switch schools, and I not-so-mysteriously ended up on the aftercare committee, too.

Perhaps, because this force lives in me, this force that tells me to be all things to all people, I have transferred this force to L, too, insisting that he not only brush his teeth every morning and have a healthy packed lunch, but that he also do his homework and practice piano and make it to soccer every Friday afternoon and again on Saturday mornings. And who is the person who reminds him to do all these things, who prods and nags and enables? That would be me. I am much like Brooks was before she woke up, which is to say—I have, for all these years, thought that I could Do It All; and in many ways, I have.

But at whose expense? Does L like this life? Do I? Would we both feel happier if we just ate frozen pizza a couple times a week, if I’d graciously let another parent be room partner, if Friday afternoons were still ours? Even if I didn’t spend that time writing, mightn’t I spend it doing the other kind of things—paying bills, tidying, email—that free up my writing time during the week? Or, God forbid, sitting in my hammock just thinking, exaggeratedly not wasting my life?

***

That evening after soccer practice, I talked to B about the article. “I need to carve out more time to write,” I told him. “I want to spend every weekend with you and L, because I miss you during the week, but I’ve realized that I can’t. I need to start taking some time on the weekends to write, or maybe even a weekday evening, because with teaching and all the other obligations, I’m just not spending as much time writing during the week as I need to.”

Guilt, that old monster, rose up. B, with his nine-to-sixer, has less time during the week than I do, and despite everything I’ve said above, that must make it sound like I bustle about like a charwoman, taking care of all the housework for my man, he’s (almost) as engaged in the domestic sphere as I am: he does most of the laundry, cooks breakfast most days, bakes all our bread, maintains our garden, and is as involved with bedtimes and bath times and all the rest as I am. A tiny voice in my head whispered: selfish. 

“So can you take L to soccer on Saturday morning?” I asked, even though I had plans on Saturday afternoon, too.

And, of course, because he is a decent human being, he said yes, and I spent the time in my studio, writing.

At the end of Kim Brooks’s article, she seems to come to a place of acceptance that all of us moms who write must, obviously, come to. She maintains her resolve to cut out the “white noise,” and, brilliantly, if a little unrealistically, she swears she’ll do a yearly artist’s residency—a week away, every year, just to write. But she also accepts that doing both things well is doing both things poorly: you rob Peter to pay Paul. You neglect your parenting, or you neglect your writing. It’s this elusive idea of balance, and you just have to make it work.

In my mind’s eye, I can see the possibility of an artist’s residency every year, and of saying no more. This life beckons to me like low-hanging fruit, just barely in reach. I’m not quite there, yet, though. I will, undoubtedly, continue to take on too much for my child at the expense of my own work: I’ll still cook these great meals, and feel guilty when I don’t return phone calls, and volunteer for too many activities at L’s school.

But I’ll also, I’ve decided, hold a little more space for myself. I’ll say “no” more. And I’ll think, as a friend reminded me to, to realize what I am giving up when I say “yes.”

This weekend, B was away, up in Portland partying it up with his college friends. So I had to do soccer; in fact, I had volunteered to bring snack (old habits, old habits!). But on Sunday, I called some other parent friends and asked whether they could take L for the morning so I could work.

And because they are decent human beings, of course they said yes. 

And there I sat, writing, enormously relieved to have put this down.

——

Further (Great) Reading:

Curtis Sittenfeld on The Pool, in which she asks why it is only women novelists who are asked how they “balance” writing and parenthood:  “The Secret to Work-Life Balance? There Isn’t One”

Aya deLeon on her blog, in which she posits that writer moms of color have never assumed that there will be “balance”: “Portrait of the Writer Mom as a Member of the Working Class”

 

Making a Big Mess of Things

This morning, meditating on the back deck, I noticed California’s subtle signs of fall. As a New England transplant who grew up with dramatic fall weather and the trees in flames, the signs here are a little too subtle for me, but today was pretty good: a gorgeous late sunrise (we all piled into L’s bed to watch it through his windows at 7:15), walnut-tree leaves littering the deck, crisp air, and that slightly maudlin fall light that seems to strike diagonally. This weekend I’m planning to spend a lot of time in the woods, watching fall, clearing my head.

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Fall’s diagonal light

Last night at my writing group I asked a few veteran fiction writers how to approach writing a novel. When I wrote my memoir, the plot was laid out in front of me; I didn’t have the blessing or the curse of having to make things up. (Sometimes, I wish I had, since many traditional publishers have been calling the story “too quiet.” What can I say? That’s my life. Quiet.) Given all this freedom, I have no idea what to do with it. I have 100 pages from last year’s NaNoWriMo, and then about 25 of a “new draft.” I have my main plot points. But deciding what happens in between—what should go on in, say, chapter 2—is beyond me. I stare at the laptop, longing for someone to tell me what to write.

Of course, I suppose the character could do that. In this terrific podcast, writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about having a conversation with your book, and while I haven’t quite done that yet, I’m open to the idea that my main character, Hilly, could somehow tell me what’s next. Is that ludicrous? Yes, and no. Maybe I’m just not listening right.

But anyway, back to the writing group. We talked about writing exercises and introducing conflict and what the characters want and pushing myself to be more outrageous and maybe losing a major thread that’s not interesting me after all. But mainly what I took away from the conversation was to just make a big mess of things, for now. You can’t know what a character will do until you’ve written her, and then written her some more, and then written her some more. And maybe none of those scenes will make it into the book, but maybe they will. And maybe, as I write, keeping notes, starting new files, disorganizing everything and trying new things and then sticking it all back together again, I’ll learn what’s supposed to happen, what’s important to me, what’s important to Hilly and her friend V.

Making a mess terrifies me. As you know from posts like this, in my old age, much to the shock of my parents and brothers, I’m sure, I have actually become a hyper-organized individual. One of the beautiful things about writing, for eight years, a memoir with the plot laid out for me, was that I spent much of that time tinkering. Polishing. Moving things around. It felt joyful and straightforward (or maybe I’m misremembering all the hours I spent pulling my hair out, freaking out—probably). There is nothing straightforward about writing a novel, not when I’m in what we might call the ideation phase. Not when I have so little time to actually write these days. And especially not when I’m hoping against hope to finish this book before another decade has passed.

Nonetheless, I am resolved to try: to see what happens, to make a mess, to not know what’s coming next. Maybe there’s a metaphor here? (There always is.)

And, lest I leave you on that dubious note, here’s an old poem about fall.

OCTOBER

It’s raining colored paper.

No, birds—cardinals, orioles, and canaries,

swooping, dipping towards the hard surface

of the road, then gone. It’s the cornfields

have turned to paper, and a pumpkin

spills its guts on a front stoop.

A boy discovers it and starts to cry.

Who would do such a thing,

bring down the jagged grin, hard, on the steps?

Something in him falters.

He imagines his house on fire: water boiling

in the goldfish bowl, floating, weightless fish.

He thinks about God and Judas

and seventeen-year locusts, how they ruin things,

wringing his hands, worrying his fingernails

to splinters. He stares out at the fields,

counts minutes till schooltime, his breath

a neat circle on the window,

because it’s cold this October, already—

and there in the road is the flock of leaves,

swooping, dipping into the hard surface,

then gone. They touch down, and then they’re gone.

The cornfields have turned to paper,

and behind them the sky.

© Susie Meserve. This poem originally appeared in Indiana Review, Fall, 2001

My Big F-You to the Writing Rat Race

A few weeks ago, I posted this blog post. It was all about my need to get off my butt and get some real writing done, my sense that the space I’d rented needed to serve as an imperative to produce, produce, produce—and about my difficulty getting started, in part because it was summer, hot and gorgeous, and my work schedule had drastically slowed down. But also because after spending eight years writing a memoir, and being in that limbo state before the route to publishing it has become clear, it was hard to even think about The Next Big Thing with a clear head. After I published that blog post, I got a few comments of congratulations on starting a new project and some encouragement to keep going.

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My kid flipping the bird

And then I encountered some resistance from two people: one, my friend slowmamma, who is on a one-woman crusade against the American rat race. The other was a therapist I really should be seeing more often. Slowmamma reminded me that the nice weather wouldn’t stick around, and that I should enjoy it while it lasted. The therapist reminded me that when any project is finished, it’s essential to take some time to sit with it. She talked about how, in the school of thought she follows, after any big life event (like finishing a memoir and an accompanying book proposal) there is a stage called “completion” and a stage called “rest,” and that if you shortchange the rest, you really don’t feel the completion. Take a break, she said.

For about two days, I kept the words of these wise women close. I reminded myself that breaks are good. I tried to quiet the voices telling me to keep pushing even when I wasn’t feeling it. I meditated. I sat in the sun and thought. I fully believed that I would honor the promise I had made in the therapist’s office: I was going to take a week off from writing. I would read some comedy, watch some comedy, jot down ideas as they came. Freewrite, perhaps. Rest. I said that on a Thursday.

But I lied. The following Monday, I’d convinced myself that I was ready to start work again. I tweeted that I was going to write 750 words a day, no matter what. I opened a new file, and I started again on the novel. I fantasized about having a completed draft in six months. I diligently put down those daily 750 words for about a week, though they seemed to come more and more painfully each day, and then something happened: the words just wouldn’t come anymore. So I wrote a poem instead. I stared into space, I washed some dishes, I cleaned the bathroom, I checked my email, I graded papers, and I wondered if I should have honored that rest period after all. And then I began to feel intensely guilty.

And afraid. 

All summer, trying to write and failing to write, trying to give up and failing to allow myself to give up, I have been ruminating on what it is I might be afraid of. Put most grandiosely, I think it’s fear that if I take a break, if I don’t produce, produce, produce, I will disappear off the face of the earth and never write again. That I’ll disrupt this trajectory I have wanted to believe myself on, a trajectory where I’m publishing regularly and going to writing conferences and connecting to other writers and “building a platform” and adding likes! And followers! And friends! And fans! And while some of this is the kind of garden-variety, free-floating anxiety I always feel when the writing isn’t happening, it’s also what we 21st-century writers are told we have to do if we ever want to get ahead, if we ever want to be widely read: Don’t. Ever. Stop.

I do want to be widely read, but lately I’m finding it hard to swallow the bitter pill that an act of creativity has become so tethered to consumerism and to getting ahead. When did it become the reality that books are merely “content” to be produced? When did I begin to feel that there weren’t enough hours in a day or years in a life to explore, to try new things, to think a little, to make mistakes, to pause, because if I did I might not get enough, say, Twitter followers? Didn’t I just blog a few months ago about not wasting my life? Why do I feel like I’m wasting my life by worrying so damn much about whether I’m producing enough?

I don’t know, but I do know I’m not the only one who’s obsessed. The voices are everywhere, and they’re loud. On She Writes the other day, the blog post The Art of Submission debated the finer points of quitting “being” a writer (in other words, stopping submitting and platforming and just, well, writing). No, the blogger declared. She would not do that. She needed to keep submitting, to write like her life depended on it. She needed to remain hungry to be published. And then there were the comments; one reader reminded everyone to push through and keep going at all costs—”try for 175 rejections!” she intoned. “Here I go.” Meanwhile, over on Twitter, every second tweet is about building your platform or improving your brand. Whole businesses are built on marketing for authors, social networking for writers, blogging to change your life. How to get more followers, more likes, more tweets. Even my trusted writer friends are at it: “What’s your hustle?” one asked me the other day.  In that moment, I just wanted to hustle myself to my bed, pull the covers over my head, and sleep—for days.

I’m not a naïf; I understand that we live in a different world than we used to. I can see the merits of social media for writers. I love that the blogger on She Writes is hungry—good for her. I always want to work hard, even when it feels difficult. At different times in my life, I’ve embraced those tools and that ethos and excelled. I’ve been hungry. But right now, I’m craving a much more innocent, and unplugged, space. I’m wanting to feel more like I did on the weekend I moved into my new writing studio, when I put my iPod on shuffle, sang along to every song, and slowly and happily applied a new coat of paint to the walls, thinking, I’ll finish this when I’ll finish it. I’ll hang pictures when I want to. And then I’ll sit at that desk and remember what it is when words are good and hard and raw and beautiful.

I’m a lucky woman; I have created the kind of life where I get to spend hours, sometimes, alone in a room creating. (To some of you, that may sound like hell, I realize.) But with that kind of life comes a lot of pressure and many voices, not all welcome. And here, today, on this blog, I’m calling it: I refuse to make my writing about the rat race we Americans make everything about. I don’t, ever, want to conflate producing and publishing and platforming with the much more fulfilling work of WRITING.

Which, sometimes, requires a break.

A break.

A break.

 

It’s lovely to get this off my chest. Thanks to Jesse Taggert for the encouragement. What’s YOUR experience with the rat race, writing or otherwise?

 

Now I Have the Space, I Guess I Have to Use It; OR: How Writing a Book is Like a Yoga Class

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Summer!

Summer.

I love summer; I always have.

In fact, one of the greatest challenges of living in a place like the San Francisco Bay Area for me is that, though the weather is quite frequently amazing here, we don’t really, truly, get a summer that’s hot, hot, hot—and I miss it. But somehow, this past week, we’ve had something pretty close. It’s been unseasonably warm and dry (well, duh—it’s always dry) and the fog belt has been belted in, like so many unsuspecting children in the back seat of the car on a summer road trip (uh….). The garden is bursting at the seams. L is doing a fun summer camp and we’ve been biking there in our shorts. Then he has swimming class in a town beyond any mention of fog so I sit on the sidelines baking. Online classes make my time a little more my own, too. I went to yoga the other day for the first time in months.

And I do not. Feel. Like. Doing. Any. Work.

Suffice it to say that my huge enthusiasm for my new writing studio has waned some, simply because, while I love being in here, it also feels like an imperative to get off my butt and actually produce some writing. I’d love to! I really would! But man, it feels challenging.

This is not just because summer is so very, very tempting. It’s also because B and I are making some Big Life Decisions that are occupying a lot of brain space. And along with that, I’m in that very weird, somewhat-exciting, somewhat-terrifying place of starting a new project. A novel. It’s the same novel I started months ago, during NaNoWriMo, which I promptly relegated to the back burner once the book proposal and revisions entered in. But now that all of that is done, I have no excuse but to write the damn thing.

When I was a kid, my mom used to remind me, every time I started something new, that change was hard for me. Man, that was an understatement! The first day of Kindergarten wasn’t pretty. Starting high school sent me into a ten-day long depression that I still shudder to remember. Going away to college was awful. I’m not at all good with transitions. And so here I am, with one project to bed, sort of, and another on my desk. I know what needs to happen in the book, mostly. I have the premise all tied up. But I have a major problem to solve—I’m trying to write a character who’s a stand-up comedian, and frankly, I’m not that funny (actually, I’m hysterically funny, but only in person, and only to a small handful of other human beings). This is making me completely overwhelmed. In my more productive moments this week I’ve Googled “how to write humor” and done a few exercises that have been marginally entertaining. Then I kind of stare at the paper and freak out. I think what I really need to do is just jump in with both feet, get messy, and attempt to be funny along the way.

But I’d much rather be sitting in the sunshine with a good book and completely avoid it, because it feels really hard. 

So, as I said, I went to yoga the other day. During class, I had a bit of a facile realization but one that’s nonetheless reminding me something about the artistic process. The class was an hour long, and about halfway through, I got to that point that every yogi gets to in a yoga class: the moment when you really and truly hate it and wish you could go home. Your body hurts, you’re sick of mindfully breathing, the teacher is so annoying, and your thoughts have taken over and are running you ragged. Then, five minutes later, you calm down and remind yourself that the only way to get to the other side is to breathe and press on. Next thing you know, you’re done.

This is kind of like writing a book, I thought to myself. Not very much like writing a book, but enough like writing a book that I should remember it.

Here I go: breathing, pressing on, and attempting to wow you with my comedic prowess. Wish me luck.

 

Remembering Maya Angelou

I wanted to write about Maya Angelou today before I read this beautiful post on my friend and colleague Aya de Leon’s blog. Aya says it much better and more intimately than I could, and I hope you’ll pop over there and read “Rest in Power, Maya Angelou.”

And I’ll post this Ben Harper song, “I’ll Rise,” from his album Welcome to the Cruel World. It uses Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise” as inspiration for the lyrics, and it was going through my head all day yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Have All the Heroes Gone?

photo-11I recently finished Maria Semple’s fun novel This One is Mine, and it threw me for a bit of a loop. At first it read like typical plot-driven fiction, with blow jobs and heroin-shooting and infidelity jam-packed into the first few pages. You know, the kind of book you can’t put down. The plot moves quickly, the vapid LA landscape is perfectly rendered–but I kept thinking to myself, do I actually like any of these characters? And the answer was: no.

Ah, but the loop: by the end, I did. Semple somehow casually inserted enough humanizing details that she began to make us like and pity the self-professed asshole, the valley girl, the cheating wife, the drug-addicted lover. I felt like I’d somehow gotten the wrong first impression and, sheepish, had decided to look again.

Tricky, maybe, but a welcome and refreshing change to what I’ve been thinking of as the Anti-Hero Problem. Lately it feels like everything I read–and certainly, everything I watch–is filled with anti-heroes. My hubs B and I are talking about it. He couldn’t stomach the entire season of Breaking Bad because he despised everyone too much after a while (I didn’t even try). We’re onto House of Cards now, and, while I have to confess I’m pretty into it, there’s a part of me that’s wondering which characters I’m rooting for. I’ve felt this way about so many TV series I’ve tried to get into, and so many books, too. I read a Carl Hiaasen novel a while back and disliked everyone. And I’ve talked before about my issues with excellent writers like Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen, writers whose work I so admire but whose characters I have trouble respecting. It seems to me it’s become very cool to be…unlikeable.

Am I crazy? Is anyone else noticing this penchant for the anti-hero?

Back to Semple; I did really admire the subtle way she shifted the landscape in This One is Mine. I don’t know her work very well (though Susan Szafir interviewed her over on Popcorn a while back, which you should read!), but I think I’d like to read more.

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:

So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.

Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just

stop

writing

right

now.

But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.

And I got to thinking about rejection.

I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.

And there were quite a few little gems.

This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:

photo-11

“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”

I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.

And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:

Bogan

And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:

FreeLunch

Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.

This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.

And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.

Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.

And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.

I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.

NiceRejection

Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!

Charles McLeod on The Quivering Pen

I wanted to share this lovely essay by my friend Charles McLeod, whom I’ve blogged about before.

PensOver on The Quivering Pen, Charlie writes about publishing his first story at the same time his dad unexpectedly dies of sepsis.

Here’s a teaser:

The copy of The Iowa Review that contained my story was among the titles.  It was the first time I’d seen the issue.  It was late at night, deep winter, and no one else was around, and if I’d felt my dad’s presence every second since his death, that presence was all the more pronounced as I stood there in the half-dark, staring at the magazine’s title.

The Quivering Pen does a semi-regular feature called “My First Time”; QP says: “writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.”

Good stuff, methinks. I might just submit something.

I hope you enjoy the essay.

Susie