The Post-Graduate

It has now been a solid month since I graduated from Antioch University LA’s MFA program. I’ll be honest – in the two months just before the residency (so, all of October and November), I was convinced that I wouldn’t graduate because I would succumb to a fatal heart attack from the combined stress of finishing my final manuscript, trying to get out the fourth issue of Lunch Ticket with a staff that wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, and the amount of paperwork and meetings involved in starting a new company.

At the time, I was self-deprecating in my complaints: “It was stupid of me to be starting a company right now, I know. I should have waited until after graduation.” But self-deprecation was a mask for the unending frustration I felt at the fact that every single thing I did took time away from other things I had to do. And let’s not even talk about the things I never got around to doing. My mother has a long list that I’m sure she’d be happy to send you.

Now that the MFA is behind me, though, how have things changed?

First and most obviously, I’m now on a more regular schedule. Because I have my own company and therefore no boss, I get to dictate when I get into the office and what constitutes an acceptable work day. For me, that looks like getting up at 6:30, getting myself and the kid ready for our day, packing up the car and driving her to school, going to the gym, then heading into the office. A more regular schedule also means that at the end of the day, I’m not hiding in my home office trying to wring another couple of productive hours out of the day instead of hanging out with my family.

Sadly, though, that thing that I went to two years of punishing grad school to learn? Not using that so much. It’s not that I’m not writing at all. In fact, another one of my stories was picked up for publication last week, and I’ve done a few more submissions. But the novel that I’ve been working on is in a holding pattern because I recognize what needs to be done on it: research, rethink, rewrite. Yup, for the third time, I’ll be gutting it and doing some pretty fundamental revisions. That’s not a bad thing, but it does delay my novel’s completion substantially.

The nice thing, though, is that I’ve gotten myself to a place where I recognize that publication is not going to change my life (or anyone else’s) in any substantial way. I’ve come back to a place where writing, hard as it can be, is its own reward. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be pursuing publication. It just means that I’m no longer in a place where that’s the most important goal on my horizon.

I can live with that.

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.

I Only Exist in the Past

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1997, I brought with me a backlog of The New Yorker magazines. It was the first magazine I subscribed to that made me feel plugged into the adult world. The problem was that somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I had to read every single article in the entire magazine, cover to cover. That meant every Joan Acocella dance critique where Ms. Acocella reveals in painful detail how bitter she is that her dance career never took off. I couldn’t care less about dance, and having it described, critiqued, teased apart and explained to me in painstaking detail is worse than having gum grafts (and yes, I’ve had gum grafts, so I have a basis for comparison).

Then I realized that I don’t care about anything that Roger Angell has to say about baseball, although I’ve ploughed through thousands of words about it because I had to finish that article to get to an Ian Frazier piece about the hilarity of child abuse. But the problem with forcing myself to read every single word is that if I procrastinate at all, the next issue is in my mailbox before I’m done with this one. And then the next one. And before you know it, I’ve got two years’ worth of magazines in a huge pile somewhere, mocking me.

And then I realized that it’s not just my reading habits that have me dwelling in the past. At some point over the summer, I decided that I would give the tv show Battlestar Galactica another shot. My husband and I tried watching it when it first came to Netflix, but because I hold FarScape up as my apex of space opera television, I found Galactica humorless and dull. But I have forced myself since then to watch it (although it’s still humorless) and I’m now nearly through the series. Which apparently ended in 2009.

And I’ve now extended my time travel to my podcast listening. I’ve been listening to Judge John Hodgman since it premiered in 2010, but I’ve since  checked out the other podcasts offered by Maximum Fun, and have started listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go!. I started listening to it yesterday, and I’m now up to Episode 5, which was recorded in January of 2007. Bush was still president. I was still working. My older kid still liked me. That 2007.

I have often been told that I do not look as old as I am. It’s true that I stay out of the sun, I do use a moisturizer every morning and every night, I have good genes for looking young. But I don’t think that’s what does it for me. I’d have to say that what keeps me looking young is that mentally, I’m still somewhere between 2006 and 2010.

 

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.

Who You Gonna Call?

The last time I was at the hairdresser, my stylist was talking about her landlord. She lives in what she describes as an “adorable junior studio,” but it does have its share of problems. She’s had to do a lot of cleaning and fixing, including replacing the locks. She said that she’s petitioned her landlord to make these fixes, but even the other tenants in her building have told her that appealing to him is useless. She called him a slumlord.

It got me to thinking about my house. I think I may be a slumlord. The problem is that my only tenants are me and my family. I’m perpetually overscheduled, and it’s easier to just learn to work with the things that are a little bit broken, a little bit cluttered, a little bit sketchy.

A partial list:

  • there’s a broken dishwasher sitting on my back porch
  • along with a broken toaster oven
  • and a DVD player that doesn’t work
  • and a elliptical trainer that finally conked out
  • and my stationary bike that only just died (despite how it looks, I exercise a lot)
  • the door of the cabinet in the guest bathroom has a broken hinge and it’s just hanging there
  • same with the bottom door of the linen cupboard
  • the utility sink in the laundry room has a hole in it
  • there are two tiles missing from the corner of the kitchen counter
  • the porch railings need painting
  • the planting boxes from the porch need cleaning out and replanting

This is just the big stuff that annoys me daily. What’s the most annoying bit isn’t that I’m on tap to fix this stuff, but I can’t do it myself, and there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know how to do. The hinges that have failed are the really complicated, fiddly kind, and I don’t get them. I can’t load the exercise equipment into the back of my truck by myself in order to take it to the dump.

This is really the paradox of modern life. We have dishwashers and vacuum cleaners and washing machines and garage door openers – all sorts of labor-saving devices. All this saved labor is supposed to translate to saved time – time that milady can spend sunning her dainty knees by the pool, etc. Except that Americans haven’t done that. Americans have taken that extra time and filled it up with more work. And I am, in that respect, very American.

I guess at some point I’m going to have to put down my work – my manuscripts, my trips to the city to fix up another house with its own problems, my work helping my kid with her schoolwork, etc. – and start fixing some things around here. Either that, or I stage a rent strike.

At the Top of My Game

It happens every time. I’m feeling good. I’ve got a lot going on. I’ve scheduled myself pretty tightly, partly from necessity, partly from neglect. I can’t control when other people want to have meetings or need to pay rent or get sick, and I tend to forget that planning a birthday party takes more than a day, or that I can’t be in two places at once.

At first, I’m humming along. I’m hitting on all cylinders, I’m cranking out the work, I’m feeling good about the number of things I’m checking off my “to do” list. You’d think I’d be happy, right? And I am! In fact, I’m so happy that when someone says to me “Can you take this on?” I say “Sure I can!” And I will trot out the old adage that if you want to get something done, give it to the busiest person you know, which is generally me.

I’m staying up all night reading for school, spending all day on the phone taking meetings while revising my manuscript while sending emails to the library board about our next big event.

And then comes the day when it all goes sour.

It could be that my kid mistook the deadline for her school project, thinking it was due a week later. Or somebody in the family gets sick and my down-to-the-second timing gets thrown out the window. Or worse, that I get sick, so not only can I not do all the things I’ve planned, but I feel horrible both mentally and physically.

As fast as I came up the hill of “I can do anything! I’m an achieving machine! Nothing can stop me!” I’m now screaming into the valley of “I’m a fuckup! Who do I think I’m kidding? Why do I keep doing this to myself?”

At one point, I put together a list of criteria for myself for which projects I should take on, and which I should decline. The problem is that when I can do anything, I can do anything. I don’t need to consult a list or a calendar. Certainly I can give you feedback on your website, write four chapters of a novel, help you move across country and meet you for drinks! But once it becomes clear that I can’t, it’s not just that I feel bad for letting people down. It’s what I imagine all those people are saying. That I’m a flake. That I’m incompetent. That I’m not as bright as I’d like to think I am.

The end of the cycle is where I start believing that it’s all true. I’m not looking forward to that.

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.