Friday, February 5, 2016

notes from the wall

when i'm writing a novel -- in addition to the charts taped to the walls (sometimes on the back of wrapping paper and often in layers, not bothering to take the old ones down) -- i write notes to my future self about what i think is going to happen. i store these at the beginning of the document.
my experience this morning is the closest thing to time travel (aside from high-school reunions) that i know of. it's the moment when i've lost the thread and after weeks of not looking at the opening notes of where it's going or the wall charts, i go backward to go forward.
i read the notes that Baggott-past has written to Baggott-future which is Baggott-present, as i know her. and i'm deeply indebted to Baggott-past for not trusting Baggott-future to remember the overarching plot lines and writing them down, wild guesses and all.

Friday, January 8, 2016

My interview at the National Endowment for the Arts is up. I answer the "how do you do it" question, talk about acute, specific, and contained writer's block, stealing from poetry and short stories for the sake of novels, learning from writing across genres and audiences -- with a bit about pen names. a Wes Anderson shout-out and an admission of Alec Baldwin narrating in my brain. (And I'm deeply thankful to the brilliant interviewer for using the vague descriptor 40-something.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

1/2 Dozen for James Tate Hill

It's my great pleasure to introduce James Tate Hill. His debut novel is out in the world and I deeply appreciate the wisdom and honesty that he drops for us here. 


Q: I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration—the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas—but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

A: Academy Gothic is and isn’t based on my own experience teaching at the college level. Having only taught at large state schools, I projected some of my own bleaker experiences onto a small liberal arts college where budget cuts aren’t so deftly absorbed. All this is to say the novel’s atmosphere and plot details accumulated over time, but I can point to a handful of moments in which the possibility of a novel, specifically a comic novel, began to take shape. One of these came when a man who was neither a dean nor our superior shushed a room of university faculty with a method I have only seen used in elementary schools. He was an administrator whose salary—a colleague showed me a website where the salaries of all state employees can be viewed—exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, conducting a meeting whose purpose I don’t recall and might not have known before, during, or immediately after said meeting. Perhaps all you need to know is that magic markers were involved. Trying to gain everyone’s undivided attention to begin the meeting, he raised his hand and continued to do so. One by one, we gleaned that he was requesting that we do the same. “Hands? Everyone? Hands?” Only when all faculty had raised one hand and ceased all conversation did the meeting begin. Seeing the fury in the eyes of so many colleagues—hearing it in their muttered profanity—it wasn’t a far leap from academic satire to a murder mystery.

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

My obsession with the 1980s is ongoing, but it changes shape every few years. I was born in 1977, so my entire childhood spans the decade of new wave, Atari, Michael J. Fox, and neon-tinged capitalism in all its seductive, destructive glory. Lately this obsession has morphed into a curiosity about the fear and confusion of the era that I was too young to notice at the time. Americans had lived with the Cold War long enough for nuclear annihilation to seem, at least to me, like a teacher’s idle threat to send you to the principal’s office. Kids raised on the broad strokes of movies like Red Dawn and Rocky IV will find the complexity and empathy missing from those movies in TV’s The Americans, the best show on television since Breaking Bad came to an end. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give nuanced performances as travel agents and parents who happen to be resident spies for the Soviet Union. Having never enjoyed a James Bond movie or John le Carre novel, the word spy made me initially wary, but the show is as character-driven as it is well-plotted, and the period details are plentiful enough to satisfy 80s nostalgists. And anyone who enjoys The Americans should pick up You Are One of Them, the debut novel from Elliott Holt from 2013. It’s about an American girl whose childhood best friend might or might not have died in a plane crash and might or might not have been a diplomatic pawn of the Soviet Union. You’d think the depth of these more ambitious stories would make the sitcoms, arcade games, and toys of my youth less interesting in comparison, but understanding the context for all the brightly colored distractions adds new layers to my appreciation.
Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Let’s go with old #17: Talk is cheap. During the first semester of a graduate program in literature, I learned very quickly that I didn’t have the stomach or heart to be a scholar. I spent most of my free time, and much of the time I should have been reading critical theory, reading books about screenwriting and information packets for creative writing programs. It was probably a book by William Goldman where I encountered some invaluable advice about dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but the essence of what he said is that words are free in the real world, but at the movies they cost five bucks, or whatever a movie ticket cost when he was writing. As a reader, I love dialogue as much as anyone, but as a writer I’m constantly asking myself if my characters are simply talking because I can’t think of anything essential for them to do. If I had a nickel for every line of dialogue I’ve cut from a draft because it was pausing the narrative rather than moving it forward, I’d have the funds to see every movie I want to see for the rest of my life in IMAX 3D.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world—something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

I was lucky to have had an agent for the first novel I completed, an underdeveloped comedy whose narrator is a small-town copy editor who becomes friends with an actor/professional wrestler modeled on The Rock. I consider myself lucky because my agent was a good one, and when he wasn’t able to sell my novel it was pretty clear the problem was the novel and not the agent. Only a couple of the rejections gave specific—read: honest—reasons why they were passing, but one that did has stuck with me, for better and worse. The gist of the editor’s comments were that the novel’s subject matter wouldn’t appeal to female readers, and that the number of male readers there might be for such a book wasn’t large enough for him to take a chance on it. My novel’s problems were legion, I would realize in the months after we stopped sending it out, but this was the first time I learned of factors unrelated to the quality of one’s work being involved in acceptance or rejection. At the time, a writer friend, a former professor, told me how ridiculous this editor’s comments were, but I’m still not sure where I stand. Even if we dismiss the notion that not enough men read books, or that women are less interested in certain subjects or kinds of stories, it was instructive to learn that the publishing industry believes both to be true and that the size of a writer’s audience probably depends less on the quality of his or her work than how enticing it sounds in summary.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

The prevailing image of a writer as a young man or woman seems to be the introvert more drawn to the library than the playground. While I learned to read at a young age, was moved ahead a grade in elementary school—the whole bit—my memories of Saturday afternoons at Charleston, West Virginia’s Kanawha County Public Library are of puppet shows, free movies, and checking out books with far more pictures than words. When reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, I based my choices on how short the passages were in the two sections from which I chose. As an only child, my default setting was keeping to myself, but it was TV, video games, and comic books I turned to when I was alone. By the time we got cable in 1989, a year before I upgraded my Nintendo to a Sega Genesis, I was so blissed out with entertainment options that I didn’t even read the books I was supposed to read for school.

What kind of writer did this make me? A late-blooming one, for one thing. For another, when I finally started reading fiction with some degree of seriousness, the books I read were decidedly literary. In fact, they often felt like the opposite of entertainment. It took many more years to discover reading could be what I wanted it to be, that I could find in books whatever I wanted to find, and that the distance between depth and entertainment doesn’t have to be so wide. From there, I finally learned, or started to learn, how to write the stories I wanted to read.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

Until publishing my first book, I had thoughts about the publishing world, but I wouldn’t say I had feelings. News of bookstore closings and dwindling book sales depressed me in the way one grieves for victims of natural disasters in another hemisphere; until it’s your loved one, we tend to shake our heads and send what we can to the Red Cross. Recent news points to independent bookstores thriving across the country, and from what I’ve read book sales seem steady, but the most eye-opening realization these past several weeks has been how small the world of books truly is. I don’t mean the community of writers or the literary world—I’m talking about the world of people who read and care about reading and books. I joked last year that if a meteor hit Minneapolis during the AWP conference, 96% of the market for chapbooks would be wiped off the face of the earth, but the truth behind that joke is that the audience for books of any kind consists of a troublingly high percentage of fellow writers.

As a child who didn’t turn to books as a primary source of pleasure or entertainment, I’d feel a little hypocritical saying we need to get our kids more interested in books. And the dilemma of how to market books to the population as a whole isn’t a new one. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that books have survived for many decades in spite of competing media. More good news is that books don’t need to adapt to the marketplace; fiction and poetry and stories in printed form do what they do as well as they ever have. If Kindles and audio books have brought a few new people into the reading community, it isn’t nearly a number as high as it could or should be. I can think of no invention more capable than books of instilling empathy and knowledge, those elusive properties that could, in great enough quantities, probably save the world. I’m not sure publishing is in need of saving in the same way our planet or political system both are, but the fates of all three might be improved if you convince some of your friends and family members who don’t regularly read books to give them a try.

James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, and The Texas Review, among others, and he is the fiction editor for Monkeybicycle. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, he lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.

On Committment

I have a piece up at WRITER UNBOXED today on the importance of committing to a first draft of a novel -- why you have to stop seeing endless versions at a certain point and choose a path through the jungle of it all. Hope it helps. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Inter-generational Star Wars -- a note from the Scarred Generation

My 18 yo is the only one who's seen the new STAR WARS. He's fit to burst with spoilers -- just choking on them. 
We're in the kitchen and I try to explain why I seem distant and aloof. It's about the past. Our history. I look at him coldly and say, "Look. I come from a deeply scarred generation."
"What do you mean?" he asks.
I close my eyes. "Some kids saw the Empire Strikes Back the day it came out. Other kids didn't." I open my eyes and stare deeply into his. "What do you think happened to those other kids?"
He's speechless.
He knows what happened to those other kids. He shakes his head, ever-so-slightly in hopes, I assume, that I wasn't one of the other kids.
I was.
"It was 1980," I mutter through a fog of memory. "I was with a friend who'd seen it and a friend who hadn't. The seer -- who shall remain nameless -- promised not to spoil it. Assuming she was true to her word, we went blissfully through our day. Some Pac Man. A little Joust. A trip to the Seven Eleven. It was there in line, having just paid for Slurpees that she ambushed us."
I'll never forget where she was standing, where I was standing, the coldness of the Slurpee in my hand. The words that came out of her mouth -- ten words. That's it. You all know the words or close enough. All was lost.
"It was a sneak attack," I go on. "There wasn't even enough time to cover our ears and scream nanananana..." My voice trails off.
It's a grave moment. A respectful hush falls over the kitchen.
I don't expect him to truly understand. How could he? The fact that we had only three TV channels, nothing streamed, our primal phones were cruelly bolted to walls. For three years, we'd been trading Star Wars bubblegum cards.
Good God, we were bereft.
And now the bulk of my family is going off to watch the new Star Wars in 3D. As I lamely represent the 20% of humans who get nauseous in 3D movies, I'll stay home, trying to get past the trauma. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Aging, Art, Daughters & Ta-Tas -- REAL SIMPLE

I have a piece in the current issue of REAL SIMPLE in which I refer to my ta-tas as "my sad Walter Matthau eyes; they're that soulful these days." It's about aging (I'm going for graceless but comedic), art, and daughters. 

Some have asked to see the original piece of art that was made by my daughter, the sculptor Phoebe Scott. Here it is.

The essay begins with the two of us on the phone. She's trying to figure out her next project and decides to go back to one of her most rooted themes, deterioration. Over the course of the piece, I talk about aging and about art, but most of all it was an unexpected moment to have my own daughter's art reshape my sense of self.

Note: It dawned on us here yesterday that, looking at the photo accompanying the piece, which isn't my daughter's piece but a black and white photo where the face isn't visible, people might think I posed topless for REAL SIMPLE. They aren't mine; those in the photo are clearly an upgrade.

And for those who are too young to know who Walter Matthau is, here's a photo -- post-BAD NEWS BEARS, for obvious reasons.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Robin Silbergleid

I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of THE BABY BOOK by Robin Silbergleid and, as much of a feel of memoir as it does a collection of poems, it has stayed with me.

It's my great pleasure to have Robin here to answer a few questions!

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

I love the phrasing of this question—often when I teach, I tell students their project is to find their obsessions and honor them.  In general conversation, I think the word “obsession” can be a bit off-putting, but within the context of writing, it’s generally their subject.  My literary obsession is undoubtedly the tangle of issues surrounding reproductive choice, motherhood, and infertility evident in The Baby Book.  It’s a project I’ve worked on in various forms since 2002 (when I started the process of trying to become a mother).  I’ve started a new book (am I allowed to say that?) that I’m conceiving of as a series of domestic prose poems, in some way a sequel of sorts to both The Baby Book and my memoir Texas Girl, and doing some research on cookbooks and domestic manuals.  Our library happens to have a huge database of American cookbooks that are available digitally.  Good fun!
     I’m also obsessing about sleep, or lack thereof (my 4-year-old doesn’t sleep—like, until recently it was like having a newborn— and we’ve actually seen sleep specialists).  I have an essay I’ve been working on about that process, as it’s so much more complicated than any of those parenting books or conversations about ‘sleep training’ would indicate. My personal life and professional life are incredibly tangled; there’s a whole interview in that.
     Otherwise:  I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie and very stoked that two of my old favorites are making comebacks (The X-Files and Gilmore Girls, both of which I’ve written about!).  When not wrangling children, writing, or teaching, you might find me taking a yoga class.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s obsessive but it’s important to me.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Like you, I think, I’m more of a hard-work, butt-in-the-chair, rather than wait-for-the-muse, sort of writer.  The story that unfolds in The Baby Book is also the story of writing The Baby Book—something that took a long time with a lot of near misses, pushed me in all kinds of emotional ways, but needed to be done.  I wrote a draft of the first poem in this collection in 2001-2002, actually, “The Childless Women Talk about Frida Kahlo,” when I was just thinking about becoming a mother and trying to make sense of an experience of reproductive loss and somehow encountered the painting Kahlo’s “The Henry Ford Hospital” at exactly the right moment.  Perhaps not inspired then, but charmed.  Or perhaps that’s simply paying attention and making connections? 
     What followed was certainly not inspiration but painstaking work.  I sent a version of this book out in 2006, and it immediately earned second place in a national competition.  Second place often doesn’t mean publication in the world of poetry (my department chair didn’t quite understand that!), but it was encouraging.  I kept at it.  It hurt to write, it was devastating, honestly, to revise, not “cathartic” at all.  The version that was published was ultimately very different than I first imagined—it now has a section about my second child and parenting after infertility and pregnancy loss—and I’m very happy with it.  I often talk about infertility and IVF as the experience that pushed me places I’d never thought I’d go; this book is very much the same.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I feel like my answers are starting to blur together.  It very much depends on the project and the moment in it.  I love beginnings and first drafts.  I write very quickly at this stage and it’s full of possibility.  That really goes for any genre: poetry, literary/cultural criticism, memoir, or, more recently, short stories.  Revising is much more painstaking, more so for certain projects than others.  Although I agree with the oft-expressed sentiment that young writers often send their work out too early, my motto is “get it off my desk.”  If someone else is reading it, I can be working on something else.  The Baby Book was one of those projects that changed and grew not because I was actively revising it, but because it was out in the world, I was growing as a writer and thinking about other things. When it was picked up by CavanKerry, I revised in a very systematic way based on my editor’s encouragement and feedback.  But it was difficult work and angsty, due to the subject matter.  I’m very happy to be on the other side again, just reading around, taking notes, putting words on the page with few expectations at this point, just the accumulation of untitled prose poems I’m tentatively calling “Mother Is a Verb.”

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Make a writing schedule.  I recently had a conversation with a thesis advisee—super smart student, the type who has earned major scholarships and awards, easily top 1-2% of those I’ve ever worked with—and we talked about her writing habits.  Wednesdays, she said.  I was stunned.  I think so many young writers are either so overwhelmed by the urgent, all the stuff that has actual deadlines, and/or convinced that inspiration will strike, that they don’t actually make the habit, the daily habit, of writing.  Those books like “Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” have something to them.  I think that’s true of all kinds of writing, both literary and academic.  While I don’t work every day on my writing—juggling too many other hats—I do spend at least four mornings per week producing new writing, and certainly there’s not a day that passes that I don’t read something, even if it’s just what I’m prepping for class.
     My other would be carry a notebook with you at all times.  Everything is fodder for writing if you’re paying attention.  When I’m on a walk and I notice my neighbor chiseling away at the painted lines covering the mortar of his brick house, I write it down.  Those moments happen all the time.  And no, writing notes in your phone is not the same thing.

Criticism.  It’s part of the territory.  How do you handle it?  Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

The teacher I learned the most from in graduate school wrote paragraphs about our poems as feedback.  It was an incredible amount of personal attention.  They weren’t so much suggestions but close readings.  I knew when she didn’t “get” what I was up to the poem had failed in some major way.  But that was never about a poem not meeting her aesthetic, just what she saw, as objectively as she could frame it.  That is, when I receive criticism from someone who takes the project on its own terms, I’d like to think I’m a writer who can take constructive criticism and do something with it.  I always welcome line suggestions from the folks in my writers group or an editor who sees where the project is coming from.  Even if I don’t accept the specific suggestions, that’s encouragement to go back and rework that part of the piece and figure out what the problem is; to give a specific example, my poem “The Childless Women Talks About Frida Kahlo” used to have four sections.  My editor asked me to cut one, and I insisted that the poem needed it.  But in the end I saw another section of the poem was misleading and cut that one instead, and then reordered.  I think we’re both happy with the result.  There were a number of moments like that along the way, and each presented the opportunity for me to think very systematically about what purpose each poem in the book served, where it should be placed, how it worked.  I will confess that this process was much harder with The Baby Book than with other projects, mostly because of its emotional and autobiographical content.  That was a useful reminder for me as a teacher of writing that receiving criticism is not an easy thing, particularly when students are producing, as they should, deeply honest work.  Still, the ability to look at one’s own work with critical detachment is vital; I don’t think it’s possible to grow as a writer, or survive the business, without it.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I’m teaching two classes right now, with different reading loads, as well as directing a graduate independent study; I also read the work of the writers who come to campus for readings and talks.  That is, my reading is very much dependent upon what I’m teaching and don’t have a lot of time for “pleasure” reading (although reading what I’m teaching is generally pleasurable).  Right now on my nightstand you can find Simeon Berry’s Monograph, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and your own Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which is simply wonderful.  As you can tell from this list, I do try to read in a number of genres, and I take different things from them.  I always gravitate toward novels when it gets cold and the fall semester is winding down; I suppose they’re my guilty pleasure because I don’t teach them much anymore.  I’m looking forward to some time with tea and novels over winter break, and then going back to poetry alongside my students next semester.

 Robin Silbergleid is the author of The Baby Book as well as the memoir Texas Girl.  
She is also an advocate for infertility education and partners with "The ART of Infertility" 
on related programs.  She is associate professor of English 
and director of the creative writing program at Michigan State University. 
For more, visit