This dress? I love it, and it is unfortunately both CBS and LOL.
In honor of the school year starting, I wanted to share my vision for the teachers of the world: a clothing store with tags that will, in advance, describe how our wardrobes will disrupt our classes and frustrate us. Most of these concerns, as you will see below, are for the women standing in front of the kids all day.
BCI: Boob Containment Issues. We don’t want that, and the kind of tape J-Lo uses just doesn’t work in a parent-teacher meeting.
BAI: Boob Anxiety Issues. This won’t actually show your boobs, but you’ll be anxious about showing your boobs or revealing the shadow of a nipple through the fabric and you’ll spend the whole day pulling the back of it down to try to restore the neckline to the place it rested when you tried it on for two seconds in the dressing room.
Black Chalk Monster: This is nice and black, will go with anything and seems to be a wardrobe win. But somehow chalk dust adheres to this poly-blend fabric with such tenacity that it resists all attempts to brush it off, and you will look like you wiped the chalkboard with your butt, which is not a good image for your students to be contemplating.
CBS: Cute but sweaty. This product is 90% polyester, and although it is drapy and has a great colorful print, it will make you perspire like a hog when you are up in front of the classroom gesticulating and writing on the board.
CTHRU: Transparency Issues: This will reveal you wear a bra. A bra is mandatory for most women, and going without one is not okay, but apparently also acknowledging that you wear a bra by showing its ghostly outline through a shirt is not okay. These things on my chest? Oh those are just hovering ghost boobs.
Dog Hair Magnet: This is black, will go with anything, so it seems to be a win. But when you sit in your dog-hair-encrusted car, it will pick up dog hair in places you can’t reach with a lint roller before your first class. This matters unless you’re so far gone into the semester that this seems like a good thing, or unless you are wearing a CTHRU or HOT and the dog hair is your strategy for taking down the sexiness of your outfit.
HOT: Hot for teacher: This is not a boob issues or a transparency issue but may just have a little bit of cling or maybe just too much style. It just looks nice here on the rack, and it looks cute in the dressing room, but when you put it on in your bedroom, it looks too cute. Somehow. Crap. Or this is the outfit your wildest student will say is “cute,” which will make you lose all sense of authority in the classroom.
LOL: Learning Outcome Lag: This is either too weird, too noticeable, or too three-decades-ago, and it will get you on a list that kids will pass around to make fun of, and this is only important because it will distract them for their Learning Outcomes
TENT: Sexless tent: This is teacher safe but will make you feel like a warehouse, and you’ll experience a dip in self-esteem and a rise in worthlessness that will happen to coincide with the request for heading up a committee or dead-end service project that you, in your sexless tent, will say yes to, which will lead to much suffering.
WAW: Wash and wear and winning! This is a Thursday outfit.
Wrinkly Mess: It’s nice, it’s linen-ish, and Mom always said linen was classy. It’s cool enough to provide ventilation, which alleviates CBS concerns. And yet when you get out of the car, you already look like you slept all weekend under your desk. This is a useful outfit to wear if you are part of salary negotiations.
BOOTS: These knee-high boots, worn on the first day, let you know I will kick your late work to the curb. If you remember nothing else, remember these boots and know I mean business. I don’t care how much my calves sweat in the August heat, these boots are worth it.
U-Squared: (Thank you to Kelly Ferguson for this one!) The Square, a Menswear jackets with shoulder pads circa 1976 Power Suit. Useful for creating a hegemonic silhouette. You think you can out-Camille Paglia me? Pick up the course packet and we’ll see about that.
This is not everything I should be reading. I have a huge list of things I want to read next, books I’m eagerly awaiting, and so on, but these are the books I’ve gotten around to so far this summer that I wanted to recommend. A little of everything…
Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave: Spare and devastating, but keep reading. I couldn’t put the book down because of the agony and direct attention to the author’s tragedy of losing her husband, two children, and parents in the tsunami of 2004, which hit the town in Sri Lanka where she was on vacation (She is also from Sri Lanka). But keep reading. The honest places she ends up are so fulfilling and utterly earned; this is a “how to live” with no schmaltz, pedal-to-the-metal book.
[image error]Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Adopted and raised by a deeply troubled mother, Winterson finds her soul in the library, in women, and in her own scrappiness. Honest, and one of those books I am glad I know own. A reader’s love affair with books, a working-class honest manifesto, a continual complication.
Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat: This begins as a study in the psychology of how humans deny and freak out in the face of environmental collapse. Sounds awful and harrowing, right? Her point stays with you–we are in trouble–but she weaves it with an affirming memoir of her own transition to environmental activism through reading a book by Bill McKibben, starting a group in Nebraska to oppose the XL Keystone Pipeline, and living every day the best she can. I was deeply touched by her wisdom in melding environmental writing, memoir, and psychology.
Emily Rapp’s Poster Child and The Still Point of the Turning World: Poster Child is Rapp’s account of growing up with a disability, but it is an essayistic memoir full of reflection, turning and re-seeing old moments, and tracing how they shaped her. The Still Point of the Turning World is her account of her son’s affliction with Tay-Sach’s and dealing with the reality of his impending death. Count on Rapp to say it as real as she can.
Liz Stephen’s The Days are Gods: A woman moves from LA to rural Utah to find a connection to the land. Beautiful writing, a gripping narrative, and a thoughtful reflection on place, relationships, and motherhood (among many other subjects).
Adrian Matejka, The Big Smoke. A book of poems about boxer Jack Johnson (1878-1946). That’s right: poetry about a boxer, and not only that, but poems so tightly packed and light-footed that you forget you’re reading poetry and forget you’re reading highly researched and crafted narrative, interspersed with letters and interviews from others (including his [image error]lovers Hattie and Belle) in Johnson’s swaggering, hard-working, Shakespeare-quoting, luxury-loving, complicated life to flesh out his character. Matejka pries what makes this powerful and conflicted man tick by triangulating from multiple perspectives. “The day Jack Johnson doesn’t go faster/ than another man is the day you should/ plug your ears because the trumpets/ are coming directly.”
Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems: I learned about him when he passed away through the poetry of his that friends posted on Facebook and fell in love with his work. Direct, heart-propelled, a loner with minimalist tendencies loves and loses and loves and loses, and loves Pittsburgh and the broken world.
Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings: I’ve already raved about this on Facebook, but seriously, I can’t remember the last time I loved a novel this much. The characters of six kids who meet at a summer camp are so deftly drawn, and it’s impossible to describe how the author gets the details and insights of real life so clearly on paper. I’m buying copies of this to give away.
Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending: A novel you won’t want to put down. Slim and immediately urgent, one that stayed with me after reading it. The ending is devilish. Read it with a friend to talk about what actually happened. Thanks to my friend Edrik for recommending it.
That’s it so far!
We want to know when essays first entered your life, which essays really speak to you, and how you as a teacher and a writer work with essays, for yourself and with your students.
The essay–as you might know if you’re interested in the form–is many things to many people. We (Ioanna Opidee and Sonya Huber) have been meeting for months to talk about the exploratory essay, which is what we’re calling the Montaigne-influenced “wandering” mode in nonfiction writing. Wandering, yes, but also some pointed journeying. We believe the essay is a mutable form, maybe a mode more than a form, and we see “essaying” in many kinds of writing, and even in fiction and poetry. We have taught the traditional “persuasive” essay in our composition classes, and we have recently both been trying to teach the more “wandering” mode. At the same time, we think there’s room in the essay for straight talk, and even for re-imagining and re-seeing what actually persuades or connects with a reader. We’re especially interested in persuasion now, as the federal guidelines for teaching nonfiction in the Common Core State Standards Initiative will affect how so many students in K-12 public schools encounter the essay.
Currently, we have a chapter on this topic appearing in a forthcoming anthology and an NCTE panel on the topic in November. Our larger project is a book in which we take on how we might teach the skills that lead to essaying, and how we might communicate the value of essaying in concrete terms, lined up with curriculum standards, for a wider audience, a way of bringing together essaying expertise in the literary community with the needs of public schools and everyone who teaches writing.
We are interested in hearing from writers who love the essay form and teachers who teach the essay form. Take our survey to tell us all about it.
When I’m not working on memoir or essays, I find relief in the works of nonfiction I *don’t* have to write. I’ve accumulated a list of subtitles for memoirs I won’t be writing. I challenge you to write the subtitle for a memoir you won’t write, and leave it in the blog comments or on my Facebook page. I’ll wait until Monday or so and give the one that makes me laugh the loudest a signed copy of Opa Nobody (or Cover Me if you want that instead). Here’s the catch: since it’s nonfiction, it has to technically be true. So even though you won’t be writing the memoir, the subtitle should refer to your real life.
: The Chronicle of a Life in Which Julia Child Has Played No Discernible Role
: A Memoir in Memoirs
: A Year of Reading Anti-Memoirs and Coming to the Conclusion That They’re Basically Self-Hating Memoirs
: My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult–Oh, Wait, That Wasn’t Me
: No She Didn’t
: How to Try in Various Fields without Really Succeeding
: A Memoir of Moderation
: One Midwestern Nerdy Bitch’s Crazy Story
: Three Not-So-Nice Verbs and How I Do Them
: Good Thing I’ve Got it all Figured Out Now
: A Graphic Novel In Which People Just Sit on Couches Holding Books Because That’s Basically What I Do
: Dr. Spock to Dr. Sears In Two Generations with Colic
: Things That will Freak You Out
: Things That Have Totally Freaked Me Out Every Day of My Entire Life
: By Which I Mean: Awesome!
: Libraries I’ve Torn Through Like the She-Beast I Am
: A Year of Whining
: My Bond with Used Nissan Vehicles that Couldn’t Be Killed
: I’ll Forward You the Link
: A Meditation on Superballs: I Mean Real Superballs, the Kind in the Vending Machines; Don’t Be Crude
: I Saw it On Facebook Somewhere
: Pedagogy as Gleaned from Facebook Links
: Craft Supplies I Have Neglected and Under-utilized But Cannot Part With Because That Would Mean Confronting My Failure to Craft
My fictional selves are like Charlie’s Angels or intergalactic ninjas. They get so much done while wearing silver lamé bodysuits.
Actually, there’s no version of me that looks right in that kind of an outfit, but I make up these women–and then they irritate me. I’m so not a superhero.
A few days ago I sat at my desk, decidedly un-silver-lamé, pretty much wrecked by 2 pm. My hands hurt. My neck muscles knotted up. My elbows and shoulders throbbed. The joints in my toes stung. But I didn’t even take physical inventory; I didn’t have that much sympathy for myself. I wanted vengeance. Me and myself were going to have a little snit with each other. I looked at the little clock in the upper-right-hand corner of my computer’s screen and thought, Three hours. You’re wasting three hours. Three years ago, that would have been a fresh half a day, an oasis. Programs would have been designed, proposals and essays written, projects cracked open.
Remember that fantasy caffeinated self? I saw a glimpse of her silver cape as she sped by outside my window.
Up until three years ago, I had been relatively lucky, health-wise. Then after a thyroid problem, the symptoms of rheumatoid disease exploded full-bore, and I gradually pieced together my diagnosis: an auto-immune disease that attacks the joints and in general messes with things. Before that point, I had thirty-nine years of thougtless and lovely mobility. They were wonderful, and I am so lucky I had them. Still, today, I have some good days–most days I do have a lot of mobility, and some days I have almost all. I do still have days of 90 percent mobility, but I don’t take them for granted.
It’s been three years, and three years would seem like long enough to get used to a new situation, but my mind and my body both struggle with the burden of the other people we used to be.
I recently finished reading Emily Rapp’s Poster Child, about the experience and effects of a birth defect that limited her mobility, requiring a foot amputation and multiple prostheses. She includes a vivid explanation of phantom limb syndrome, the effect of a mind that has already mapped its body and continues to signal the emergency of a missing appendage.
Rapp explores deeply the effects of this challenge on her sense of self, how it changed every experience, creating new adaptations and permutations. She writes honestly instead of aiming to create a fantasy of unreachable saintliness. She doesn’t push the “learning” and the “peace” of her experience, because it doesn’t end.
She also writes about the effect of constantly imagining the other versions of her life, the what-if bodies, the alternate universes in which she had two symmetrical legs.
So–my disease is not at all crippling. And I’ve had years–decades–to take my body for granted. That past of taking myself for granted has birthed the silver-lamé superstars. I still want a body I can take for granted, a body I can push, a body–the body of a twenty-year-old, I suppose–that occasionally needs sleep and food but bounces back stronger after a glass of water and a donut.
If you have a brain then you’re constantly imagining, so I think it’s unrealistic for me to tell myself to “stop it” and to forget about what it felt like to be pain free. I will probably have longing toward those other bodies, how it felt to be them, for a while. Maybe for the rest of my life. I suppose that’s normal. At the same time, this phantom body syndrome, the fantasy version of myself, can easily take over if I let it. It’s a video game of shame in which this body, the one I have, always ends up losing, judged as inadequate. I can’t help but imagine a paradise in which I would get everything done that I felt I needed to do.
Those silver lamé women are fantasies, a kind of efficiency porn, two-dimensional bodies. They’re not real. One of the ways I’m working on living with this disease is to shake my head and try to clear my eyes of the flashes of silver, and I have to first name them, to realize they exist, that they flit through my vision when I’m frustrated, when like a little kid I want to throw down my purse and my keys and swear. I suppose everyone has to contend with these former bodies in some form as they age and their bodies change. My break-up with my phantom selves is happening faster, sooner, so maybe I’m getting a challenge done that other people have to face later. Yeah, I like that: check it off the to-do list. That’s another fantasy, but it’s one that’s slightly more realistic.
And I have to remember that I have strange and powerful mental silver-lamé abilities, and I believe in powers that develop to compensate for others that wither. I have to imagine new superheros: that on bad days I can wield my metal cane to trip ninjas. As I squint for my close-up, the thoughts and ideas I have are sometimes foggier, but sometimes the plans I hatch are brilliant.
This is for a “blog carnival” about “How Do You Prevent the Disease from Taking Over?” from a prompt by Kelly Young, whose blog RA Warrior is an essential part of the rheumatoid community.
Laura Valeri (fictionista extraordinaire and my wonderful former colleague at Georgia Southern University, author of the beautiful book The Kind of Things Saints Do and the forthcoming linked story collection, Safe in Your Head) asked me to participate in a blog-tagging thing called “The Next Big Thing.” Basically, I get to answer these questions and then tag five writers who I think are the Next Big Thing. Very cool!
Let me first talk a little about Laura. Back when I was teaching at GSU, her office had been the office of Peter Christopher, a colleague of mine at GSU who passed away. Good vibes. I’d stop in from time to time to get a sanity check-up and to hear about Laura’s novel, in progress, which at the time involved an epic imagining of the Epic of Gilgamesh. And she and her lovely partner Joel had this house on a marsh in Savannah that was just like how you’d picture it, with crabs in the water and a little boat. Their house was filled with all the wonders of the natural world, from crystals to cool rocks to preserved alligator heads. Or crocodile. I can never tell the difference.
What is the title of your book?
OKAY. So I’m doing this based on my book Opa Nobody, which is about to be released from University of Nebraska Press in paperback in Jan. 2013! This month!
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Young activist woman goes in search of inspiration and tries to recreate and understand the life of her dead anti-Nazi activist German grandfather.
What genre does your book fall under?
That’s a weird one. I say it’s creative nonfiction to make things easier, but because the book has imagined scenes (I take pains over and over again to say, “I imagine….”) I would put it technically under the mixed-genre heading. University of Nebraska didn’t categorize it at all, which I think was smart.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
My mom went to a funeral in Germany when I was around 30, and she came back with tantalizing snippets of stories. One was, “Your great grandfather hung a red flag from a mountainside.” I don’t really know what this means, but as I was a leftie labor activist at the time volunteering with Jobs with Justice, it gave me a thread to start pulling on. I began with questioning my mom and I slowly began to understand that he was a miner and a socialist activist. I didn’t even know then that Germany had, in the period between World War I and World War II (called the Weimar period) been broken up into several independent soviet-like free republics run by workers’ councils. It was an amazing period we never learn about in school here in the U.S. At the time I was exhausting myself with my activism, and as I began to learn about this story, I began to wonder about generations of activists. I wanted an elder to help sustain me and encourage me, and I had this fantasy initially that my great-grandfather the miner activist was an encouraging mentor to my grandfather the clerk-socialist activist. The reality was true and also much more complicated.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I don’t even think there was a first draft. There was a mountain of paragraphs that gradually came into shape, and that took a very long time. The entire book was started as an idea in 2001 and submitted to Nebraska in 2006.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My mom, ultimately. She was the link to all these stories, and I was also always troubled by her relationship with her dad. She felt very left out of his activist life, and I wanted to understand why that had happened. I guess I wanted to explain Germany history to myself to see how my family fit into it and to understand the forces that had affected my mom.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
University of Nebraska Press, which rocks.
What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?
I see it as somehow connected to the mixed-genre work of Maxine Hong Kingston, particularly China Men.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
This is a crazy question I have never thought about. I would only hope Janeane Garofolo would play me. That would make my life. I will have to think about who would play my grandfather. Hmmm…..
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
It’s about Germany and it contains a ton of German history nobody talks about, including the wide range of left-wing resistance to Hitler, and also a bit of the story of how Germans struggled to rebuild their country after the war. But it’s also about the left in the United States, my tour of duty through every little group I could find, and the struggle I had and have to be a mom and a writer while being an activist–that’s the burning question at the heart of this book. How do you do both?
P.S.: here are my tags for five (okay, six–I cheated) writers who are the NEXT BIG THING!
Author of Teaching in the Terrordome: Heather Kirn Lanier
Author of Looking for Esperanza: Adriana Páramo
Author of American Afterlife… Kate Sweeney
Author of Steam Laundry (poetry)… Nicole Stellon O’Donnell
Author of Use Your Words (a writing guide) and Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood: Kate Hopper
Author of The Radical Housewife: Shannon Drury
I didn’t mean to do this, but I have chosen nonfiction writer mamas as my theme! Read these excellent books and enjoy.
[image error]I am gratified in a hopeless kind of way whenever I get asked questions about books and publishing, because it is very nice that the person asking might believe I could answer such questions. So I wrote this long series of lists as a response, because I am very bad at answering this question, for reasons you will learn shortly.
Question 1: How Do I Get My Book Published?
1) This is an agonizing question, because the next sentence out of the questioner’s mouth might be, “I just need a proofreader and someone to help me organize it.” I wish I had the answer because I SO ABSOLUTELY DO NOT. Someone might, but then again, if they promise to make you happy in that way so quickly, I’d be a little suspicious.
2) I’m trying to figure out and express exactly why the question is so agonizing. I think it boils down to my own inadequacy. Here’s my batting average (for real). About 1 hour a day since I was 23, minus the weekends and sick days. So we’ll say 5 days a week, 18 years… that’s 52 x 5 x 18 (at the bare minimum)=4680 hours. If I add in a few half hours here and there and a bunch of manic proofreading and revisioning, it’s close to 8,000 hours pretty easily (not to mention reading time, which should be added in, I suppose). That is a lot of waking time of life. To show for it, I have 3 books. And I can only tell you that I have no idea how to write a book, much less how to publish one.
3) If I tell you it’s impossible, you might be sad. I don’t want to make you sad. It’s not impossible; it’s just not something I have a map for.
4) Maybe you did just spit that book out and are on the way to getting published (somehow) and you obviously don’t need my help. Who am I to say? But you’re looking for a trapdoor—a magic escape hatch—that I don’t know about. I really don’t know about that escape hatch. So I can’t even begin to tell you how much you are asking the wrong person.
Question 2: How Do I Write a Book?
1) This is overwhelming to a writing teacher because it implies that the process of writing a book is simple. If it were simple, you could find the person who can give you the simple magic recipe. I’m sure someone’s trying to hawk that, but it’s like weight loss. The simple and drastic formulas are probably really bad for you and produce bad books.
2) This is overwhelming to a writing teacher (me) because it reminds me of how non-simple my writing process is and of how much time I put in (an hour a day, kids) to accumulate sentences that sometimes get thrown away. Okay, they get thrown away a lot. Or sometimes I write whole chapters and then brood on them for the next five years, split them in two, use one paragraph, and throw the rest out.
3) If you saw a welder working and said to the welder, “I want to build a battle ship,” what would his response be? He would sigh and say, “Okay. Maybe you should learn to weld first.” The obvious next thing is to say, Just write your book. Or just find an MFA program. And I hate myself for giving that kind of flippant advice.
4) I get the feeling you’re not asking the right question (see the next chunk). And I don’t want to be all “Mr. Miagi,” but at this stage of the game I have the feeling you haven’t struggled enough. I want to tell you to go away for a year and write every day for an hour and then come back and we’ll talk.
5) I do have some good practical advice: find 20 books that are like the one you envision (but of course not as good). Read them, and then write notes for each to describe how your book is different. This is your process of getting educated in the market that you are writing for.
6) Look for writers’ conferences that are near you and go to one. You can find writers conferences by looking them up at Poets & Writers at www.pw.org.
7) Just start looking. Look at websites like Poets & Writers or Writers Digest and subscribe to one of these magazines. You will see just how many people have this same desire and will gradually learn about what kind of book you want to write for what audience.
8) Forgive me for being so inadequate a guide to something you care about so deeply.
9) You can hire me for a standard contractor’s rate if I have time in my schedule, or I might be able to refer you to someone else who does editing and consultation. It’s really hard to know whether or not you should pay someone for these services. If you really care about writing, you should learn yourself. But ultimately I think you will have to pay a teacher. That’s how I learned, so I don’t know another way. It’s disrespectful of another person, however, to ask them to do something huge for you over an extended period of time without compensation.
10) Writing is seen as “easy” in our particular cultural moment. It’s not respected. That’s why it’s not given the support and focus necessarily in schools. We think someone else should teach writing, that it’s as simple and direct as downloading some instructions like on The Matrix. Learning and doing writing takes time and attention and concentration, like anything. Many writers have subsisted for years on sub-standard teaching gigs that don’t offer health insurance, or freelance writing and editing gigs with the same deficiencies. When you ask a writer for free advice, you’re liable to tap into this frustration (understandable, I think) of a person with under-valued skills who is short on time because he or she is busy juggling multiple gigs to pay the health insurance premium.
Question 3: How Do I Write MY Book?
1) What kind of book is it—Fiction or Nonfiction or some other genre?
2) How long have you been writing it? Do you think you have enough gathered material to be interesting to someone?
3) What kind of reader do you think it would appeal to? If you think the whole world should and will read it, you need to think a bit more and be realistic. I hope the whole world will read it, but… take the Bible. It’s very big in these parts, and yet not everyone has read it. I’m sure everyone would get something out of your book if they found it and read it, but who is the core group of readers who will be immediately moved on hearing about this book to rush out and grab it?
4) I don’t know. It’s your book. Really. There’s no recipe. If you have an even more specific question, like “How Do I Order These Essays Into an Essay Collection,” I could maybe help with that. But I don’t know what kind of book you want to write—it’s a deeply personal question, and you should be suspicious and wary of handing your writing autonomy over to anyone else.
5) Have you let someone else read it? You should. Find someone who will ask good questions and not just say, “Oh honey, it’s greeeaaatt!” You would be surprised—or maybe not—that most books are written for a general readership, and therefore that anyone who likes to read can give you really great advice. My mom is a master at this; she’s a great reader.
6) Have you attended one measly writing class? I’m not saying you need one. I’m just saying that there’s always a take-away that can help you, and writing classes are always good places to find writer friends. I don’t even mean jumping into an MFA. Try a community education center, a YMCA class, something you find in the classifieds ads, a retreat, an online course–anything.
7) Have you thought about forming a writing group?
8) If you can answer these questions, make a friend with a writer who works in the same genre you are writing in. I would bet they are not rich. Be respectful and know that, just as you pay a plumber for his services, you should offer to pay a writer on an hourly basis for his time. If you’re a student, you’re entitled to this advice as a result of your tuition, but you will need to set up an independent study. Be very specific when you ask the question so they know what you’re talking about and they can tell you’re beyond the stage of over-simplifying this complicated question.
Question 4: Are you asking me how I became a writer?
1) I wrote every day for an hour on the subway to and from work in Boston, and then I kept writing and I wrote a bad novel. Then I was hooked into it, and I subscribed to Poets & Writers Magazine, read it diligently, learned about writing and the writing and publishing industry, and sent my work out to many small and large magazines and anthologies. I gradually got published in small magazines and anthologies and got rejected a lot. It took a loooooonnnnnggggg time. it took an astounding amount of patience and still does.
2) I took community education courses on every writing subject: how to write a book proposal, how to write poetry, etc. These were just what was offered that I could find listed in the newspaper next to the bird-watching group and the classified ads for casual sex. Don’t be proud. Your teachers are everywhere. You don’t need to find Michael Creighton or Oprah and hold a gun to their necks. You need to listen to everyone.
3) I worked at a bookstore that sold books, and I diligently used my employee discount to buy the entire “how to write” section in the basement used-book section. I read them all. I’m serious. It’s very good for you. Do it. This was so good for me. Annie Dillard’s Bird by Bird, John Gardner’s How to Write Fiction. They were my best friends.
4) Then I worked in journalism. Excellent training and excellent way to become a writer. I was paid badly and freelanced, but you get to keep the skills when you’re done. Then I got an MFA. Now I teach at an MFA program. I’m a fan of them.
5) I wrote so much bad, bad stuff. I still do, and then I sit and revise. That’s the only difference: the amount of time you are willing to put in to revision. If you are brilliant on a first draft, you should not be asking me for advice, because I don’t know what it’s like to live the life of a savant and I would not be the one to guide you. I am what they call a “grind.”
Question 5: How do I get an agent?
1) I have no idea. I have published three books and I’ve never been able to get an agent. I’ve never been able to say the seventh favorite sentence of writers: “I fired my agent,” which gives writers a feeling that they are in control of something financial. Writers also like to say “My agent” because it gives them the feeling of being the boss of someone, or at least on someone’s t-ball team. I like agents. Agents I have emailed have been really nice to me and really interested in my work, but I feel about them the way I felt about boys at age 14: This is never going to happen to me and I’m going to be a virgin forever. Except there’s no urgency there at all. It’s sort of the way I feel about the band Guided by Voices. People have been telling me forever that I should love them, and at this point another version of me in another universe probably does. But I’m sort of too lazy to listen to them now.
2) Move to New York and get a job at a Starbucks in the neighborhood where several literary agencies are located. Work at a magazine like Glamour or More and wear cool boots and carry a quirky handbag. Someone at a bar will tell you how much she likes them, you will start chatting a reveal that you are a writer, and then you will have a business card. You will set up a face-to-face meeting with the agent, who will like your writing sample as well as your quirky handbag, and ouila, agent. (This is my agent-porn fantasy. I know it’s not real…. not all the time.)
3) Start a blog. I’ve heard agents like these. Read a bunch of Poets & Writers articles about getting an agent. Seriously, I am the worst person to ask for this kind of advice.
I don’t get around to reading everything when it comes out. Who does? And I dislike the way the publishing industry forces everything into twelve-month packages and then a book is “done” after such a tiny life cycle. I feel rushed by all these lists and then I feel behind. I also don’t like the score-keeping where books get tracked and tallied based on the number of lists they make it onto, because top ten leaves out so much other stuff. So this is my top ten of what I’ve read this year, completely ignoring the books’ years of publication (though that’s provided for reference.) And the numbers are just the order in which I read them (roughly). I can’t believe there are four 2012 books on this list! One thing this list has taught me is that I’m actually reading current stuff, even though I feel like I’m mired in the past as I make my way through Montaigne’s essays (done, with scars to prove it) and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (are you kidding? Nowhere close. A fun slog, though.) Anyway, the books I finished and loved this year:
1. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity by Michael Marmot (2005). Sure it sounds wonky, but if the world has made facts like “being poor or poorer tends to kill you faster” sound wonky, then we clearly need more wonks and less fear of wonkiness. It pulls together an amazing amount of long-term data to show exactly how a small increase in status makes you live longer and vice versa. Marmot is not a disinterested research; he’s clearly incensed by this, and he tells you so.
2. Against Joie de Vivre by Phillip Lopate (2008). Essays: you think you know what an essay is? You have NO IDEA! Funny and smarter than all of us put together. Lopate is my hero. I’m also so proud that our books have at some point sat in the same warehouse at University of Nebraska Press.
2. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure by Dorothy Allison (1996). This memoir with snapshots is a meditation on cruelty, identity, class, the southeast, and gender. And it’s kind and searching and fierce. And you can carry it in your pocket.[image error]
3. Live Through This by Debra Gwartney (2011). A mom wrestles with her emotions and reactions to her daughters’ difficulties, among them running away for extended periods as teens. A self-implicating narrator you can’t help but love for her honesty.
4. Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction by Barry C. Lynn (2011). This book’s goal is pretty obvious from the title, but the method is very approachable case studies, mixing things you might know with interesting and pretty important economic background that I found very surprising.
5. Black Boy by Richard Wright (1945, 2007): Teaching this made me delve into the text in a new way. The book is sometimes called “angry”; I am astounded by how measured and calm it is. It’s gotten much attention for its subject matter and thus, as with much nonfiction, not as much attention as literature. At the level of the sentence this book is incredible.
6. Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (2012), whose previous graphic memoir, Fun Home, was also incredible. This is better. I have a forthcoming review of it in Literary Mama, so I won’t rehash that here. She is so smart and provides a miraculous visual view of the composition process. Love love love. I want this to be on everyone’s “best books” list of 2012.
7. Looking for Esperanza by Adriana Páramo (2012, Benu Press). I’ve reviewed this at Riverteeth online. Buy it . Bring her to your campus or book club. I’m a massive fan.
8. Memoir: An Introduction by Thomas Couser (2011). I thought I was reading this in the search for something easy to assign for an intro class, but it’s much more than an introduction. It’s not a massive volume and it’s very approachable, but it delivers ideas from the UK-based perspective of “life writing” theory that counter and contextualize some of the semi-airless conversations about memoir in the U.S., which tend to be more driven by critics of the field and/or which revisit the same two questions (Are you lying? Can we lie?). Couser addresses those basic questions from a fresh and humane perspective and goes far beyond. My copy is underlined all up.
Sigh. Be still my heart.
9. Diaries, by George Orwell, ed. Peter Davidson (2012). I can’t lie. This was a teen-stalker gimme. I’m hopelessly in love with Orwell, and I’d happily read about him planting shrubs and tallying eggs. Christopher Hitchens writes in the Introduction that no one would want to read this all the way through. Except me.
10. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2012– Oh my gosh, another 2012. I guess I am totally obsessed with NOW) . I thought this was beautiful and expressive of the place that Wallace was tending toward later in life, so it’s different (and I think even better than) Infinite Jest. He was a true theorist of work and the Midwest. But it’s not finished, and that’s a weird experience. But if you’re into Wallace, you are probably okay with that anyway.
11. Gritos by Dagoberto Gilb (2004). He does amazing things with his voice, writing about the southwest, Mexican-American identity, Texas, work, academia, class, family, books and more, all without any pretension or any thought to “managing” an essayistic voice. He doesn’t hold back. A great collection. He writes a lot of fiction and I wish he wrote more essays.
I’m heading off to a multi-family extravaganza, so this seems like a good time to focus on everything I’m grateful for. In no particular order:
Good arthritis meds and a good doctor who doesn’t think pain should be accepted as a natural part of a woman’s life. My health: all the things that aren’t wrong with me. Chiropractors and naturopaths–the fact that those things are covered by my health plan. My health plan (despite the fact that… okay, I could go on but this will not turn into a health insurance rant. Focus, Sonya! Gratitude.) I’m grateful Healthcare Now! called me for a donation last night, and grateful that people are selfless enough to sit near a phone and call down a list of names, all the invisible grind work of changing the world.
I’m grateful for my husband, a writer and hilariousness machine. He just got a piece accepted two minutes ago by The Rio Grande Review. I got to marry a writer who is also a nice, kind, funny, and strange-enough man. I’m grateful for every damn car accident and moment of frustration because I get to work it out with him. I’m beyond grateful, just a little in awe of the universe, that he came into our lives four years ago. I’m grateful for his family and his whole damn hometown, which treats us like we’re from there.
I’m grateful for literary magazines and literary blogs, the literary community, the people who write. Books. Yummy new books that are way better than you even expect them to be and then when you read them you feel less alone in the world. I’m grateful for my colleagues at Fairfield University. Mentors: Bill Roorbach (he’s got a new book out!), Lee Martin (he’s ALWAYS got a new book out!), and many others. Ohio State University, which allowed me to go to grad school without debt–TWICE! (I am not grateful for the “The,” it’s too cheesy). And my former colleagues, now friends and compadres, at Ashland University, for my friends from Georgia Southern, especially the AAUP activists.
It’s great, in general, when people get to know you enough over years that they know the ways in which you will freak out, and you know the ways in which they will freak out, and it’s just funny to everyone. Do you know what I mean? I love being known by my friends and not rejected for my secret recipe of anxiety and exuberance. I love being around people long enough to notice their patterns. I love being in touch with people I knew from high school, including the excellent poet Nicole Stellon O’Donnell. I can’t believe our constellation of farm towns produced two writers. I’m grateful my dad made up the word ex-huber-ance. I’m grateful for my relationship with my family members, alive and dead. I’m grateful for having been in enough pain at various points that I turned to writing, because look what I got: writing. Grateful for Buddhism, for the fellowship of friends and family of, for the Lois W.’s.
Grateful for my kid, my son. The reason for so much focus and work and… I can’t say enough. I’m grateful my child has a massive sense of humor.
Other things: sausage and wurst. Coffee. Tomboy dresses that feel like sweatshirts (they didn’t have those in the ’80s, did they?). Limes. Fish sauce and Frank’s Hot Sauce. The Midwest I miss, the Rust Belt. Clearance racks. Libraries and highways and the post office. Day care workers who have SAVED me. My old car. The kindness of strangers. People who know that meetings should be short and everyone should leave with something to do. I’d be a big big liar if I didn’t say I was grateful to therapists for their sheer practicality, the hardware store of the soul. Writing classes, writing workshops, writing groups. Bookstores, especially small and strangely-organized higgledy-piggledy independent ones where you run into stuff you didn’t knew existed.
Grateful to be 41, for the feeling I got starting at age 40, when people getting mad at me for stupid reasons began to seem a bit more ridiculous, when I became a bit less eager to please any random stranger, when the numbers 4 and 0 somehow made me feel mortal, and therefore that I had no time to waste, and therefore that I did not have to put up with meanness or waste my time with stuff that’s not worth my time.
And I could go on and on, I realize, but it’s time to write.
Biggest gratitude, or near the top of the list: time to write.
Thanks to these two fine publications for helping me share my work with readers!
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