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.

Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.

Winning

Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month –  Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.

That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.

In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.

This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.

I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.

All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.

I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.

I didn’t.

At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.

I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.

And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.

What Time Gets You

I like to be clean, so every day I go into my bathroom, and I have a choice to make. Do I take a shower or a leisurely bath? If I have to be somewhere soon, I take a shower. If I have nowhere to be and nothing else to do, I might indulge myself in a bath. No one is allowed to disturb me in the bath (unless they’re bringing in champagne – that’s always allowed), and I normally stay in until I wake up because the water has gone cold and my fingers are so pruney they hurt. A bath isn’t something I can rush through. I can’t even start the water running unless I know I have a good long time.

I just got the latest round of comments back on the manuscript I’m working on. My mentor loves the premise, loves the characters, but thinks that I need to get further into the characters. His comment was that the changes I had made to my manuscript were “workmanlike.” I have to admit. That stung. On the other hand, he loves the story so much that he couldn’t keep himself from rewriting big chunks of it – he said he couldn’t resist. What he suggested was that I take a bath in my manuscript. Give myself the time to get all the way into it, so that I can inhabit the characters, play with them, live inside their skins and let them have their own reactions rather than the reactions I’m writing for them.

It turns out my mentor lives alone. His time is his own to dispose of however he chooses, so when he says “it may take you 8 hours to get the first page right,” he doesn’t necessarily realize that I do not have 8 hours in a row to devote to this ever. Between driving the kid to school, laundry, watering the garden, taking the dogs out to pee every hour or so, there is no such thing as 3 uninterrupted hours, forget 8. I would love to be able to say that I’m sitting my office turning out my masterpiece and my husband and child keep coming into my inner sanctum and disturbing me, but that’s not the case. It’s usually me going out into the rest of the house and demanding kisses or tea or a bite of whatever they’re eating.

Virginia Woolf posited that for women to write fiction they needed money and a room of their own. I have both, but what I don’t have is the conviction that it is right for me to use them. So, it’s not a lack of time or talent that’s keeping me from my literary goals. It’s will.

The Anti-Social Network

Today, I told Facebook that I couldn’t play with it anymore. Not anymore ever again, but it’s been getting more of my attention than it should, and I’m a student with a lot of homework to do.

But what do I do with all that stuff that crossed my mind that I didn’t stick on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else? I thought I’d put it here, in one giant list, just so that you know that I’m still thinking, even when I’m not compulsively posting it and then compulsively checking to see if anyone “liked” it.

In no particular order, my random thoughts: 

  • I finally figured out why my pedometer keeps showing me working out vigorously at ~7:50 every day. It’s because at ~7:50 every day, I am on a particularly bumpy, pitted and frightening piece of road driving my kid to school. I’ll take it, though. Keeping the damn car on the road is hard work, especially when I haven’t had a cocktail in at least 12 hours.
  • Ontologist: a medical specialist in ontology, specifically in curing it. I envision them sort of like the Guild of Assassins in Pratchett’s Discworld.
  • You know what power smells like? The mushroom funk of money? No. Money has no smell – not anymore. Money is now a plastic card plugged into a convenient fiction. The bordello whiff of perfume with its undertones of crotch and armpit? No. Sex doesn’t have the power you think it does, even if you can thread it in one orifice and out another and do it all day for a week at a time. Once people are sated, they’re just as treacherous as ever. No, power smells like urine. You make someone piss themselves and you’ve got them forever. They’ll never forget it, and neither will you.
  • Is “mimetic verisimilitude” redundant?

By the way, I cheated. I know I said I was staying away from Facebook, but I just had to peek. It’s very strange, peeking at people who know that they’re being looked at, just not by you. Everyone’s looking at each other, trying to catch one another’s eyes and positioning themselves so that the other people in the virtual room can see them to their best advantage. Meanwhile from the outside everyone looks a little alone, a little vulnerable. I closed the door very quietly and went away for a good cry at the beauty and sweetness of it all.