What Does a Fist Know of a Hand?

It’s December. Christmas has just passed, and in a few days, it will be a new year. I started this post on December 3rd, and am only just finishing and posting it. That’s how my life has been for the past few weeks.The magazine for which I’m the editor in chief (it’s called Lunch Ticket, and we’ve got four Pushcart-nominated pieces that you should absolutely read), published on December 3rd, my first patent has been filed, and I’ve been working on the stuff I had to do for school, and three days ago, I had a whole bunch of surgery.

There have been days when I was up until three in the morning in tears, trying to do work that I was completely sure would be sent back to me, not marked with a failing grade, but packaged with a letter bomb and a note that I did not deserve to live. I am nothing if not grandiose in my neurosis. I’ve also had days where I’m in such deep denial of it all that I just play game after game of Plants vs. Zombies as though I have nothing else to do.

The upshot is that there are times when I actually get caught up on things and have some breathing  space, and the first thing that happens is that I begin to cry. For so many years, I have been so stressed every second of every day that on those few occasions when the stress lifts, I break down entirely.  How did this happen? It’s possible that I was just born this way. Being sensitive to noise, light, the emotions of other people in  way that makes daily life a challenge means that situations that are enjoyable for most people (parties, family gatherings, concerts, movies, etc.) are still enjoyable, but exhausting.

I have always wondered what it’s like to think about an upcoming social event with happy anticipation of meeting other people, of finding oneself in a crowd, of making new friends. I have always wished that I could be the sort of person who, when she relaxed, had that melty feeling where the muscles stop being tense and the mind empties itself. I’ve always been a tightly clenched fist who dreamed of being just a hand.

A Dream Where I Am Both Naked and Flying

Last night, I dreamed that I was corresponding with two different people, both of whom were slightly odd. One was a man I knew who liked to have long, rambling conversations about fantastical, nonsensical things. He would drink bottle after bottle of cheap beer, smoke the occasional cigarette (just to see if he still thought it was gross) and hold forth. His letters, therefore, were long, written with at least four different pens, usually contained at least one beer-bottle-bottom ring and smelled of cigarette ash that I’m sure he flecked in there on purpose.

Each time I received a letter from him, I would read it all the way through and laugh and think and feel privileged that he wrote to me. I would sit down to compose a reply, but I could never reply all in a single sitting, so I carried both letter and reply around with me for days until I had worked my way through the whole thing, then posted it back to him.

The other correspondent was also a man, but his letters were even stranger. They referred to current events, to minor local celebrities, to world politics and arts and literature. They made wild suppositions and fantastical claims and sly jokes. I had only written back once, and the reply asked me to come and visit him.

I came right from visiting the rambling beer drinker, who was in sort of a funk. He was a teacher at a private high school, and now that the school year was over needed a job for the next few months. He’d been doing this kind of work for years, but he always seemed taken by surprise when summer came. I invited him to come with me to meet the other person, but he seemed hurt by the prospect that I was corresponding with someone else, as though letter writing were our love affair and I should never have done it with anyone else. I left wondering if I would ever get another letter from him.

The address was in a small open-air mall in an expensive part of town, making me think that my mystery correspondent was a shop owner. As I came around a corner, I saw about twenty chairs arranged under some potted plants, most occupied by men and women holding sheets of paper that they were reading, writing on and showing each other. As I walked among them, I heard snatches of the contents of the letters I had received, sometimes verbatim, sometimes slightly altered.

It took me a few minutes to realize that what I had taken to be an anonymous, delightful correspondence with a smart, interesting individual was, in fact, a delightful experiment with literature and the magazine form. It was a new kind of magazine, hand-written by its authors and mailed out in letter form. It was like a chatty letter from home. When I wrote back, they decided to ask me to come and write for them. I was intrigued by the idea, and immediately sad that my friend, whom I considered to be a much better letter-writer than myself, had decided not to come.

 

When I woke up, I thought for a long time about what magazines are, and what we want them to be. We use social media to feel connected with people, but I believe that the reason it doesn’t work is because we know that the person sending out a missive on social messaging took about 30 seconds to do it, and that the same message is available to everyone. The feeling of holding a letter that had taken someone hours to hand-write was so intimate and thoughtful that the revelation that one of my correspondents was actually a magazine felt even more delightful. What are the possibilities of an epistolary periodical? It seems like it would be the most fun thing in the world, both to create and to receive.

I’m Ahead of Myself, the Curve, My Time

I just completed my third of five grad school residencies. This one was different in that this time, it was more like getting together with friends that I don’t see often and having the chance to catch up on the brilliant things they’re thinking and doing. In my fantasies, I regularly attend conferences made up exclusively of people I know who are doing fascinating things, and everyone has a turn at talking about the amazing things they’re doing. I should look into hooking that up.

Anyway, in between residencies at grad school we have project periods, and each project period is characterized by a different large objective. In my first project period I had to complete a field study, in my second I wrote a short research paper and completed a 10-week translation class, and this time I’ll be tackling a 25-page research paper. In my final residency I’ll be preparing my final manuscript and putting together the presentation I’ll be giving in my final residency next December.

This means that what I should be thinking about is my 25-page paper, right? I have chosen as my subject “The Future of Narrative,” where I plan to take the reader from our beginnings in oral tradition (think “The Iliad”) and end with a shameless plug for my own new project, Lithomobilus, which will change the way you read books.

Except that all I could think about the entire way home from Los Angeles was how I’m going to do my graduate presentation. My thinking involves a whole lot of technology – basically, me on three screens giving my presentation in an order determined by the audience. When I first came up with the idea, I was out of my mind psyched about it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to doubt myself. This won’t play well in a big room, I’ll need three laptops (not really a gating factor, but it’ll require a certain amount of infrastructure from the venue), I’m not 100% sure that it’s allowed as a “lecture.”

This kills me every time. I have a great idea, and then I second-guess myself and bargain with myself until I’ve squashed my idea into something mediocre. I need to cut that shit out, seriously.

Still All A-Tingle

I just spent six hours in a car with my husband. I love road trips, but this one comes at the end of my grad school residency. After ten days of six to ten hours of school activities a day, including lectures, workshops and readings, my mind is once again percolating with all the new stuff I’ve learned.

My long-suffering husband, who came out to make sure that I didn’t have a full-scale meltdown, drove my car through the horrible Los Angeles traffic while I jabbered on at length. At about Valencia, I realized that I was verbally processing all the things I had learned, and that my husband was lovely enough to smile and nod, say “yes” in the right places. While I stopped talking, I didn’t stop thinking about all the things I’ve been hearing and seeing and doing.

The last thing I did was to have a little training session/pep talk with the next group of staff for Lunch Ticket. The first issue was a little…experimental. There was a lot of figuring things out, a lot of testing our abilities, figuring out the tools we had. This last issue, we knew a little more. We learned from our mistakes, we drew some conclusions about what we could and couldn’t do. The new issue has garnered tons of praise, and I won’t lie to you – it feels really good.

The new crop of editors is brimming with great ideas about what they want to do with and for the journal. They have connections, energy, optimism that makes me love each and every one of them.  I feel that if I do nothing else in my grad school career, having done this will have been worth it all.

The good news is that this is most assuredly not all I will do in grad school.

Tell Me About Your Novel…

For many, many reasons (not the least of which was Alistair McCartney‘s lecture this morning on the subject), I’ve been thinking about genre.

When I applied to grad programs, everyone wanted to know the same things: what genre are you writing in. At Antioch, the genres are fairly broad: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and writing for young people. And yet, even within that space, there are always those people whose writing is hard to define. What do you say about a story where two historical characters, say, Winston Churchill and Viscountess Astor meet and exchange words? What if we had the scene take place in the Parliament buildings themselves? So far, we’re solidly in nonfiction, but the second we start putting actual words into their mouths, we’ve drifted into fiction. If we describe a scene which might have happened, such as Churchill and Astor exchanging friendly insults, we might call it creative nonfiction. However, if we say that the both of them hated each other because she was secretly in love with The Doctor and was jealous that Churchill got to go up in the TARDIS and she didn’t, we’ve crossed over into fictional territory. And if we present the whole scene in Ogden Nash-style verse, that’s something else entirely.

Part of the problem with these genres is that two of them, fiction and poetry, are descended from Aristotle’s divisions of literature – “epic” became fiction and “lyric” became poetry. But all the others are offshoots of fiction that have to do with subject matter and how it’s presented. I myself am not entirely sure what separates regular fiction from writing for young people, whether it be subject matter or method of presentation.

Even after we’ve figured out that we’re dealing in fiction, one can slice “fiction” so thinly that a new genre is presented for every single book that’s published. Urban fantasy, memoir, historical fiction, prose poem – at this point in history, writers have more freedom than ever before to define themselves as they see fit: to create their own genres and carve out their own niches. Who knew that the first job you’d have as a novelist was to make up a term for your own genre?

Wait For It…..

I’m an enormously emotional person – I cry over something, good or bad, just about every day. There’s a non-zero chance that a lot of writers are like this, and I think it’s at the heart of a piece of advice Terry Wolverton gave during her revision lecture this morning. It wasn’t new – it’s the same advice I heard from Nanowrimo back in the day. The advice was that once the first draft is done, put the work aside until you’ve gained some perspective from it. Terry took that one step further: she said that once you’ve received criticism from your critique group, your mentor or your agent or editor, you should put that aside as well. Just let it sit.

I received my evaluation from my project period mentor. I felt the same sense of trepidation about looking at my evaluation as I did about looking at the feedback on my last packet. Which, by the way, I still haven’t seen. He told me in his email that he was less happy about my last revision than he had been about the one previous, and I was too crushed to look at his feedback. Anyway, despite my misgiving, I looked at the feedback.

He was meticulous about documenting all of my stumbling, but at the end of the review were the words I had been waiting for. My mentor believes that I can be “a fine novelist.”

Maybe I’m ready to open that last packet now.

Wait…I’m the BOSS?

There’s a certain cachet that comes with power. Just ask all those ugly rich guys who’re combing supermodels out of their badly-groomed eyebrows.

I am still a writer who struggles to submit work to literary and commercial magazines, so I was amazed when I realized that I’m not just a struggling writer. I’m the editor in chief of a respected literary journal. I had a staff of 18 people, all of whom were excited about the fact that they were real editors working on a real literary journal. This issue,there’ll be even more of them.

Until I got to the residency this time, I didn’t feel like the boss of all the editors of a literary journal. I was too busy making phone calls, correcting punctuation, sending emails, wrestling with the web interface, approving color combinations, signing contracts, etc. I got to the residency, and suddenly, everyone knows who I am. Everyone’s saying “hello” to me in the halls and wanting to sit next to me in lectures. The new kids just signing up to work for the journal wave to me and say hello with that same shy smile that people give to low-level celebrities – a local tv newscaster or a city councillor.

I’m excited about working on Lunch Ticket. I’m excited about the great literature we’re putting out, I’m excited that I’m the one who gets to make the decisions, I’m excited that I get to work with a lot of smart, dynamic people. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the room yesterday for the debriefing and orientation that I realized that I’m the boss. I’m the head of a literary journal.

Whoa.