Sunday, March 27, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Aimee Nezhukumatathil












A 1/2 Dozen with a Poet

-- finally --
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
who talks about
a wild array of obsessions,
inspiring young poets,
and
finding the right partner
(after a lot of doubt).

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

The poetry of two Sarahs: Sarah Vap & Sarah Gambito; writing haibun; anything glittered or sequined--I'm a regular bower bird; Sunday evenings: making a rainbow of purees for my 10 month-old and watching him delight DELIGHT in the joy of trying new foods; peacocks (the national bird of India); listening to my almost-4 yr old narrate his day to his baby brother: “Today we found shadows. Sometimes, I have a big shadow, sometimes a little shadow. Your shadow is probably very, very small.”


Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers:


Your mama was right: saying please and thank you will get you far. And more than that, I believe in the sweetness and civility of the thank-you note. With a bona-fide stamp and carefully lettered address. Listen to the paper take the ink. I believe in Happy Mail.


What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?) and Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I was involved with a tumultuous grad-school/then long-distance relationship on and off for most of my 20s. I didn't start dating my husband until I was almost 30 and my 1st book had already been published a couple of years before that. But before I met him, I was totally unsure of what the future would hold kids-wise or husband-wise. TOTALLY unsure and doubtful....there's so much you can't control, even if you have type-A tendencies like me. The guys I dated (my grad school boyfriend not-withstanding) never understood the importance of writing to me, or frankly, could handle any of my writing or teaching success (I got my first tenure-track job when I was 26)--and I dated lots of writers, many of them 'successful' themselves! So what I thought of my future in the love/romance/family dept was pretty bleak, or at least nothing long-term. I took great pride in buying/renovating a house by myself, thinking I would be the single lady with the small dog and that's that. I never knew that in less than a year from buying that house, I would meet a super-talented writer that I deeply loved and who understood and put up with my mercurial tendencies (and who I wanted to father my children--that last tidbit weeded out a LOT of guys, hee, hee)! Most importantly, we genuinely LIKE each other's company. There's something to be said for being able to travel around the world together with excruciating long delays or crazy situations (accidentally abandoned together in a city square during rush hour with no restaurant or place to even sit down in hot hot southern India while mosquitoes have their way with us and monkeys pelted us with grapes, anyone?) and we still emerge being able to laugh together, with nary an argument between us.

I don't have all the answers but I do know it's far too easy to think (and society doesn't do the greatest job of showing there are other options, which is one reason why it is important for me to mention my two young sons in interviews or in my writing) that women (let alone minority women) have to make a choice between career OR family. But I'm here to say you DON'T have to choose (if you don't want to). It's not easy, but I wouldn't trade any sleepless nights or applesauce-crusted blouses for it.


If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?


My favorite part of teaching poetry is that "light bulb moment" that happens in a student's writing where everything kind of clicks and their metaphors land from outer space or next-door and they find a space to put into words what they couldn't say before. When they realize their writing is above and beyond anything they ever imagined writing could be. And then watching them WANT to read more, and more, and more--on their own, not for any assignment or extra-credit. I think students are hungry for poetry but sometimes that hunger has been suppressed for so long, they just about forgot it entirely. But all of us can remember the joy we had when we were first reading rhymes and metaphor and filling in pictures in our minds for the parts that weren't illustrated in children's books. I love getting my students to that moment where they unplug, step away from the computer, and read because they WANT to. Because they are hungry for it. One of my greatest privileges as a professor--and I do consider it a privilege, really--is introducing them to new poets of all colors and backgrounds that they wouldn't normally find on their own, and helping them join the poetry conversation mid-dinner party, so to speak. Having students return to the joy of reading, not just for a class, not for any writing assignment--but for the sheer happiness of reading again. And of course, that naturally creates the best writers, the ones who are willing to take risks, to try new forms, new subjects, etc. I also teach environmental writing and literature, and those classes are especially near and dear to my heart. I tell my students, "If YOU aren't writing about this planet (that fishing hole at grandma's, those mountains you hiked as a kid with your parents, etc), who else is going to do it?"


What’s your take on touring?


Whenever possible (and as long as it is not disruptive), I bring my sons to various campus events and sometimes they even travel with me to readings across the country.

Once, my then almost 11-month-old eldest son came along to an end-of-the semester poetry gala reading for my graduating seniors and it was my husband (who also teaches in the English department) who held him in the back of the room, read picture books with him, and yes, even fed him a bottle--all while I was emceeing the event, taking pics, and meeting their parents. I do think it is important for students to see us as a family unit at these events, especially when they are held at what is normally considered "family time" for us in the evenings. But most importantly, I think it's healthy for them to see my husband with the baby and more than once have some young women come up to me after an event, cooing about how they hope and wish they find a guy who "clearly loves to be out with his child, cuz that's just so hawt." Heh. And these are women who have been accepted into MFA/Masters/PhD programs or who are just starting out teaching, so they very well might be in academia long-term and isn't that an awesome thing for them to see that it is in fact possible that a future partner be able to do this for them?? And there's a partnership of course. When my husband has a presentation in our campus-wide Research Expo, you can bet that it will be ME who is carrying our infant around and trying to keep our now-toddler from toppling trays of cheese cubes so that my husband can emcee the event and mingle freely. But I'd be lying to say I don't cherish those times I travel alone, have that alone time and quiet in a hotel room, catching up on my own reading and sometimes if I'm lucky--my own writing. I keep connected with my family via the wonders of Skype, but I do so enjoy having that separate identity, the living out of a suitcase, indulging in the glories of room service, and making students of all stripes (I'm often giving high school assemblies or as a visiting writer at colleges) laugh and laugh and not take themselves too seriously, hopefully making them want to rush back to their own rooms and quietly put pen to paper.


Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of three collections of poetry: Miracle Fruit, At the Drive-In Volcano, and the just-released, Lucky Fish (all with Tupelo Press). Poems and essays appear in Tin House, Orion, Brevity, and American Poetry Review. Awards for her writing include the Pushcart Prize and a poetry fellowship from the NEA. She is associate professor of English at SUNY-Fredonia where she received the Chancellor's Medal of Excellence. She lives with her husband and young sons in western New York.


11 Years ago Today, I Gave Birth to a Mad Genius/Athlete ( who can actually do math)


On this day in history -- eleven fine years ago -- I gave birth (per usual, after a few days of labor) to an impolitely large baby with fantastic eyebrows -- a mad genius inventor, in point of fact, with mad athleticism.

To get a feel for Theo, let me just mention a few things he's built -- wielding saws, hot-glue guns, high tech gear -- in the past month.

1. Authentic-looking Sticks of dynamite.
(Alarming at the breakfast table.)

2. A Long Arm Snorri Cam made from a halved skate board, bungy cord, foam, carpet remnant, straps, buckles, wood, screws... (serious construction)

3. Chest Stablilizing Snorri Cam made from PVC pipe (This way they can film their upbringing, documentary-style without even using their hands. And I once feared raising a memoirist?)


4. A Documentary -- fully edited -- of the Hippie Photo Shoot
(in which I'm screechy) with full special effects -- dream filters, flashbacks, slow motion...

5. I recently went to turn out the lights and found an elaborate Rube Goldberg (complete with balloons, pins, dominoes, string, ramps ...) holding the piano hostage.

6. An Iron Man hand (I don't want to know what powers it might possess that could render me powerless)

7. An alien egg -- not yet finished -- alien not (yet?) included


8. A knife that he rigged to make look like it's stuck in a forehead
(File Under: How to disturb your mother and make her kind of flinchy for life.)










9. A pair of foam bunny ears for his little brother
(He's sweet! What can I say?)



10. Many, many, many things that it's better I just not know about.










Theo was excellent at soccer, in utero. At four, he was draw-dropping on the field, chest-trap and go to goal. And now? Kinda mind-blowing. Our front yard is home to a full-size goal bounce-back, has homemade mini goals scattered everywhere (what CAN'T we do with PVC pipe?), and usually a dozen soccer balls like bloated Easter eggs dotting the lawn. (The neighbors so dig us!) And he's out there, putting in hours. (You gotta love something so much it drills the hours into you, not the other way around.)

Theo's also an activist. This spring, Dave was carpooling a bunch of soccer plays -- all boys -- and when one of them made fun of some kid from his school for being gay, Theo jumped in, "What's wrong with being gay? Do you have a problem with gay people?" He shut the kid down. Not easy to do in a car full of soccer buddies, in the homophobic culture that surrounds sports.

Theo doesn't wait for the world to meet him. He's one intense kid -- curious, determined, wacky, nurturing -- which we should all feel really good about, as he may one day rule the world.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rebecca Black: A Cautionary Tale in the Making?

There's nothing new about bad pop music and cheesy teen idols -- except for one new element: the democratization of mass distribution and the comment box, instant feedback.

My teen and preteen kids are up in arms about Rebecca Black's sudden rise to stardom and her incredibly (seriously awful) pop song and video produced by Ark Music Factory.

"Look at the comments streaming in," my eleven-year-old says, showing me the video. They love her. They hate her. "Kill yourself now," one commenter suggests.

Though they all cringe while watching the video, it's hard for my kids to feel sorry for Rebecca Black -- she wanted stardom and she's getting the spotlight. Conan had her on this week (including some mockery of her, of course).

It's easy for me to feel sorry for her. I imagine a child whose parents are hyper-focused helicopter parents who obsess on the kid's every move. The child's neuroses edges up. And then I imagine the scrutiny of a million fans or more -- some are nice parents, some are evil parents -- but they are scrutinizing the kid's every move. It's too much. It'll put you in a foul mood and make you shave your head or worse.

I remember the story of Britney Spears not wanting to sing on a metal stage, attached to all kinds of electrical wires in a lightning storm. Her fans were furious. What kind of fans are they? Your most loyal fans? In the paparazzi drag race that followed she flipped someone off. Her mother made her apologize. I thought it was cruel. I thought she's got to be holding in some incredible -- and rightful -- rage.

The problem is that with reality TV and mass distribution now available to all people go from sitting in a beanbag chair in their basement to being broadcast all over the world (while they're sitting in a beanbag chair in their basement). The fact that millions of people have seen your face makes you feel different -- almost on a cellular level. The brain can't really grasp it -- not quickly at least.

I was at a Neil Gaiman Q and A, and someone asked him if he'd been affected by stardom -- the millions of fans. He said that he'd risen so slowly -- growing an audience book by (weird and wonderfully disturbed) book -- that it had felt natural (and, one would imagine, naturally earned). He said that it's the people who rise up to stardom too quickly who suffer -- like when you're scuba diving, he explained, and you rise to the surface to fast, it's excruciating.

So, today Rebecca Black is probably fine. I imagine her adrenaline has kicked in and her hands might shake a little. But this is not good for her -- a comment a second? -- and there are going to be many, many more like her. A larger percentage of the population than ever before in the history of man is going to be famous -- at least of a little while, long enough to mess with their intake of oxygen. And some of them are going to be very young, to boot, and at an age where scrutiny of any kind is already painful.

We can't unmake them. We can't pull back the reigns of the democratization of distribution -- overall, that is a great thing. Can we explain to our children that these pop sensations are human beings? How many Lindsay Lohans do we need to lose before the media decides they should put on the kid gloves -- especially for the kids?

Prom Season.


So I was the secret identity at WILL WORK FOR PROM DRESS yesterday -- an absolutely hilarious site. Check it.

And yes, like I say over there, my father bought that dress for me because -- who knows why? -- I couldn't find the time to shop. I was weird. So here is the picture with my friend (hello, darling!) who is dutifully holding the back of the dress (see her fist at my back) so that it looks like it fits in pictures. I swam through the evening.

(Side note: I did spend a hunk of yesterday prom dress shopping with my sixteen year old. So I didn't get out of it completely.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

This Week Starts my Book Tour -- in my Jammies (at Home)


So, THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED is coming to you ... via a blog tour -- the bookish equivalent of the Staycation. That means -- I don't get felt up at airport security. I don't have to try to be funny in front of small bookish crowds (though I love you). I don't have to miss any of my kids' birthdays (two coming up). I don't even have to really get dressed for the day.

This week, I'm talking FOOD, France, craft, genre-busting, grief, love, foreignness, men, and the various hoods of women -- motherhood, sisterhood, daughterhood ...

Here are the links for this week, so far:

At bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt's blog.

With novelist Ann Mah (currently living in Paris) -- at her blog.

With my dear friend, novelist Sheila Curran at the Girlfriend Books blog.

And then I have a piece at the Huffington Post about social networking -- the backlash against the backlash -- "Novelist Walks Into a Bar or Facebook or Wherever"

And, you know what, you don't have to get out of your jammies to read this stuff either.

To quote Charlie Sheen, we're bi-winning.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What part of party ...

After catching the end of AWAY WE GO (again), I say to Dave, "Promise me something that I can't think of right now that's funny and heartbreaking and tender that ties back into something that we just experienced together (preferably written by Dave Eggers)."

He says, "What part of party don't you understand?"

I say, "I don't know. Please stop asking me that."

Moments later, my 14 year old asks me permission for something, and I say, "What part of party don't you understand?"

"If it was Dad, I could have covered my ears in time, but I just didn't see it coming from you."

This is how the day goes. It doesn't have to make sense.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Triple Jujitsu Move -- On Raising Children.


Today, it actually crossed my mind to force my 14 year old to be an accountant so that he would rebel and become an actor.

There's something wrong with me.

I said to my husband later, explaining the brilliance of my plan. "It's kind of win-win. If he doesn't fall for it, he can do our taxes!"

My husband stared at me, dumbfounded. "Do you really want him doing our taxes one day?"

"You're right. He'd probably only act like he was doing our taxes, and he'd be really convincing and we'd fall for it."

I see Chevy Chase in my head and the phrase, "Sugar, Mr. Poon?"

And then I thought of the phrase, which I think of so often but I don't know if it ever really fits, "hoisted by my own petard."

I look it up and find the Shakespeare reference and that this is the correct usage -- as it means "Injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others."

But then there's this line. "The French have the word 'péter' - to fart, which it's hard to imagine is unrelated."

Ah, yes.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

I'm Irish, By God.

Baggott's an Irish name. Some Baggotts say it comes from By God. My father, who's got his Irish citizenship, scoffs at that. He's gone back as far as he can in our genealogy. By God? Not that far back.

Dave and I rented a house just outside of Dublin this past summer -- with our 4 kids and a niece. We caught up with some of my relatives -- Connor O'Keeffe who I remember meeting as a kid (the year I fell off a bike and got bit by a dog) -- and the Henihan branch of the family I'd never met before. (My father had organized a massive reunion -- flights booked for September 13, 2001. The Americans didn't make the trip.)

We spent an afternoon with the Henihans -- an architect, his wife, their beautiful daughters, their grandchildren and our kids playing wildly in the garden. And when I got back to our little house, I went to bed. I stayed there for two hours -- too emotional to go about the day.

I'd thought my whole life about the Baggotts who left -- about how brave they were, about my fast-walking grandfather, the drinker and charmer who died young from a blow to the head in a jeep accident, all of those Rhode Island Baggotts ...

But I'd never thought of the family who stayed behind. Why? Out of devotion. Loyalty. Love. Stubbornness. Fact is that it took courage to go and it took courage to stay -- and there's beauty in both paths.

Here I am -- in America because someone took a leap. And my cousin Connor is in Ireland raising his kids because someone dug in their heels.

Today I'm thankful for all of it, by God.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Christopher Schelling


A 1/2 Dozen for Literary Agent

(the hilarious and brilliant)

CHRISTOPHER SCHELLING

who reps some HUGE names

and is here to talk about the current

Age of Uncertainty

in publishing, literary trends, love,

and being kind asshole-ish.



Is there some trend you're seeing too much of? What's feeling overplayed in publishing these days?


Trend-spotting has been one of publishing’s favorite games but we’ve now entered the Age of Uncertainty. It is historically a glacially-paced industry, so a successful book can spawn imitators that spawn imitators, and by the time we’ve crested any particular wave, there are still years’ worth of imitative inventory for the publishers to lay on weary, wary consumers. At that point, publishers make sweeping claims that X or Y genre no longer sells, as if it’s the fault of the category, when in fact the houses have madly over-published these genres, and much of it is a bad imitation of something that may not have been so good to begin. I’m not saying I don’t participate in this process – I’m a fucking agent and we’re not above almost anything – but if a client proposed, say, a YA paranormal romance about fallen angels right now, I’d steer them away from that clogged pipeline.

This is all changing as the digital revolution heats up, as more writers emerge who make their own work available direct at cheap prices. (Those authors with such current successes are, as far as I can tell, massively hard workers and self promoters, so it’s not a matter of simply writing, or even writing quickly. There are several entire jobs to do after the manuscript is complete, and not every writer is made for those tasks.) Because the traditional year from delivery to publication shrinks without the need for catalogs and sales conferences and reps selling by season and all the trappings of 20th-century publishing, trends can be taken advantage of faster. This is not necessarily a good thing. It’s just a fast thing. And it may result in pipelines that are more quickly clogged.


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


At a breakfast last Thursday, an editor said he needed a writer to do an extremely fast ebook-only work-for-hire job. This is not my usual thing, but I happened to have the perfect client for the project, someone who is between contracts and restless and hungry. It wasn’t an enormous deal by any means, but it was decent money for little work as long as it was done quickly and well. We came to an agreement by Friday morning, the author sent me the manuscript Sunday night, I delivered it to the editor Monday morning – and for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the author’s work, the project was canceled on Monday afternoon. My client still gets the entire fee, and he’s proved both to himself and to this editor that he’s a go-to guy for future work of this variety. That’s a win-win. We saw the entire cycle of publishing flash by in a weekend, like time-lapse photography. And we didn’t have to deal with that peskiest and riskiest part: actual publication. So to quote Michael Scott from The Office, it was a win-win-win.

On the flipside, five of my clients had their editors laid off in the first six weeks of 2011. The majority of the editors were publishing veterans who were too expensive to keep on staff, so all their years of industry history and insight and acumen have been summarily trashed. That, my friend, is a lose-lose-lose.


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


I had a blissfully uneventful childhood in suburban Ohio. My parents, still together after 53 years, are wonderful and supportive. I was a strange kid and they let me be strange. My mother was an elementary school teacher and I was an early reader, so books have always been central to my world. But no amount of reading can prepare you for publishing. They have curiously little to do with one another. Being an English major was especially unhelpful preparation for the book industry. I went from writing papers on Henry Fielding to working on science fiction for a mass market publisher. Of course, I was a horrendous student, so I’d gladly tackle the slush pile if it meant I never had to be in a classroom again. Once I realized that being a bossy, opinionated talkaholic with a desire to protect creative types was a profession, I was set.


The sale of what project was the easiest of your life?

I don’t know that I’ve ever had an easy sale. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole (even though I am) but I don’t think of projects in terms of the acquisition only. There have been times when the perfect editor has emerged immediately and all the stars have aligned in terms of the initial sale, but those are invariably balanced by the amount of work that goes into the rest of the publication process. A couple projects I sold to the recently-laid-off editors mentioned above were breezes in terms of the contracts, but now we’re in potential minefields and the manuscripts haven’t even been delivered in some cases. So the negotiations and acquisitions were swift, but I would not call them easy. An agent should be present and engaged at every step, because never once has every step gone smoothly. Which is why authors need agents. (He said, asshole-ishly.)

What's your advice to an agent who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

For a cranky bastard, I have a super sweet story. I’m in a great relationship with a guy who is not just a writer. He’s one of my clients. We were already very good friends, having worked together closely as agent and author for an entire decade before the, uh, upgrade, so we got to skip all the “new relationship” steps of telling one another about ourselves. If either of us is going to hear something new about the other, it’s happened that day. Most people suspect romantic involvement would strain our working relationship, yet that’s been enhanced as much as our personal one. But since I didn’t have to leave my office to find a spouse, I’m not exactly sure what advice to give. “Shit where you eat”? “Wait ten years before your first date”? “Never settle for just 15%”? Maybe it’s the perennial Wizard of Oz logic: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” Given that he’s a crazy writer, it’s also possible that this will be the night he cuts off my head and stuffs it in the freezer. And my final literary salvo will have been a sad, faggy Judy Garland quote.


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


We are still in the infancy of change. We don’t even have the proper device to convey ebooks yet. Kindles and Nooks are great first steps, but technology marches on so they’re destined to be the Edison cylinder phonographs of reading. And despite what many have breathlessly hoped for, the iPad is not a device mainly used for e-reading. For any publisher – or writer or agent – to say they are fully prepared for the next wave is specious. No one in this industry can really find their ass with both hands right now, which is kind of great. So to circle back to the first question, the next “trend” is more likely a black swan. (The concept from the thought-provoking Nassim Nicholas Talib book, not the ghastly ballerina flick.)

After braying about how no one knows anything, I’d be foolish to hazard too many guesses here. But the last decade of the music industry is certainly a cautionary tale for publishing. We’re not at a point where the audience for books wants all its content for free, as music consumers seem to, but we should remain wary. It’s a much larger issue for magazines and newspapers at this moment. As far as the agent role in the future, it seems writers who keep finding paths to success that bypass traditional publishers will still need advisors. Even the most business-savvy writers can use someone to do their arguing for them while they focus on the writing and the public elements that are driven by the author’s personality. Like it or not, the hulking corporations provide a certain amount of protection, so it might be wise for writers to have their personal guard dogs ready if they plan to fly on their own. The corporations aren’t going to simply vanish but the balance of power may shift. I’m not going too far out by guessing that contracts and intellectual property rights aren’t exactly going away either. So while the traditional agent role may morph into more of a marketer and manager than “I am your gateway to contracts with the corporation,” there is a role for the author’s advocate and business minder in the creative process. (He said, justifying his asshole-ish role.)


After being a literary agent at Ralph M. Vicinanza Ltd. for the past fourteen years, representing a wide-ranging list of fiction and nonfiction authors, Schelling has recently opened his own agency, Selectric Artists. His clients include New York Times bestsellers like memoirists Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors), Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy), and John Elder Robison (Look Me in the Eye), YA fantasy author Cinda Williams Chima (The Demon King), and humorist Jen Yates (Cake Wrecks). Prior to being an agent, he held Executive Editor positions at both Dutton and HarperCollins. He can be reached at christopher@selectricartists.com.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Dani Shapiro

A 1/2 Dozen for DANI SHAPIRO

bestselling novelist and memoirist

giving sage advice about

the title that arrives and demands the book,

writing to stave off a midlife crisis,

the 3 kinds of bad reviews,

what seems to be a beautiful blur
of love life & writing life.

(For more check out her brilliant blog
by clicking HERE.)


HERE GOES:

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?

Something happened with this book that has never happened to me before--which is that the title appeared to me and I had no idea what it was or what it meant. (With most of my other books, I've had whole manuscripts written and still no title.) I was in the middle of my yoga practice--in tree pose, actually, standing on one leg like a stork--when all of a sudden the word Devotion floated before my eyes, as if in neon. As soon as it happened, I knew. I knew that I needed to write a memoir about my struggles as a wife, mother, human being on the planet, with what--if anything--I believed. I was horrified! What the $#@% was this? I had no intention of writing a memoir. I was waiting for a new novel to start forming in my mind--but instead, here was this other thing. It felt as if I had no choice.

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 better when I'm writing, though it's almost always a struggle to get to the page. What I know about myself, though, is that I feel much, much worse if I don't get to the page. So if I have a sense of discipline, it comes from the knowledge that, at the end of the day, I will be a kinder, more compassionate, more peaceful person if I have, in fact, written. My family will like me better. My dogs will like me better. You don't want to be around me if I've had one of those days where I let every single other thing get in the way.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

My husband, Michael Maren, is also a writer and I feel so incredibly lucky (broke, but lucky...just kidding...sort of). We talk about our work all the time, we share our work, sometimes we even collaborate. Our whole life together feels like a collaboration. We run a writers conference, Sirenland together. Many of our friends are writers. Of course also can be a nerve-wracking, complicated, indignity-filled life, and that poses its challenges. We have good days and bad days. We both get moody. People ask if we're competitive with each other, and I always find that question perplexing. I can't imagine feeling competitive with him, or vice versa. We're in it together, and we each feel one another's victories and defeats as our own. But I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture here. There are plenty of moments I wish we had more security, more of a sense of what the future will bring. Being with a writer--whether or not you're a writer yourself--is a roller coaster. I like to think it keeps us from having a midlife crisis.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I think it's incredibly important for a writer to feel safe, in order to be able to take risks in his or her work. It's such a high wire act, so exposing, so deeply personal, so scary to set down that line of words on the page. I think finding one's voice requires enormous courage, courage that constantly has to be renewed. And a lifelong partner who is genuinely supportive, understanding, constant, and kind, can be a tremendous help. Also--if you have kids together--a partner who takes on parenthood as an equal partner. As for a brief love story, I feel like I've already been sappy enough about my husband here, but I'll say this: our first encounter involved Halloween, a return trip home from Somalia, a canceled trip to Los Angeles, and it was love at first sight.

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

Don't use the internet as a distraction when you're stuck. Back when people smoked, I smoked, and I loved nothing more than a cigarette break. When I was stuck, I would light a cigarette and stare out the window for the duration. But today, I think many writers use the internet as our cigarette break, and it's a disaster. It isn't anything like smoking and staring out the window. It brings the outside world in, it breaks concentration and focus, and--at least for me--leads to the purchasing of boots, or sheets, or expensive bottles of olive oil. Seriously. Stay offline while you're working. That's my biggest tip these days.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Writers don't exactly sign up for a lifetime of ease and contentment. It's hard. It's always hard--it never stops being hard. I thought that maybe after my first book, I would develop a thicker skin, or at least a sense that I knew what I was doing. I thought the same thing after my second book, my third, my fourth, my fifth... You get the picture. It never gets easier. Every time I begin a new piece of work, whether an essay, a story, a novel or a memoir, I am accompanied by these self-defeating words: here goes nothing. I think this every single time. I had the realization, not too long ago, that most that work did, in fact, turn out okay. But I had to wade through a bog of self-doubt, I had to overcome my own fears and insecurities. And truthfully I wouldn't have it any other way. I distrust the happy writer. The confident writer. Confidence is overrated. Confidence means that you're not really grappling with everything you need to--because if you were, you wouldn't feel confident. Downheartedness is part of the process. Make it your friend. Embrace it, understanding that you are taking part in a long tradition. And then sit down at your desk. The only true danger of downheartedness is letting it stop you.

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

I think there are three kinds of negative reviews. There's the kind you learn from, the kind that pisses you off because it's so wrong-headed, and the kind that doesn't do much of anything. The only negative reviews I've ever received that really bother me are the wrong-headed ones. As someone who writes book reviews myself, I see it as such a huge responsibility, an almost sacred responsibility to another writer. One must try to understand what the writer was trying to do--and judge it on that basis, not on the basis of our own personal preferences or the book we might wish the writer had written. But my favorite story about criticism comes from Joyce Carol Oates, who is nothing if not prolific. Once she and her late husband Ray were sitting at the breakfast table, and he was reading the newspaper. He told her that there was a review of her most recent book in there, and she said she didn't want to read it, because if it was a good review it would ruin her writing day, and if it was a bad review it would ruin her writing day--and she intended to have a writing day. I love that story because it's about focus and tenacity and keeping one's eye on the big picture. I wish I could say I don't read what's written about me--positive and negative--but I do. I just try to keep it in a very separate space in my mind from the place where the writing happens.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I do teach writing and have since the beginning of my writing life. I've taught in MFA programs, I teach a private workshop that has been ongoing for (yikes) fifteen years, and I direct a writing conference in Positano, Italy called Sirenland along with One Story magazine I love teaching, though I try not to allow it to consume my writing life. What I most get out of teaching is the necessity of focusing on craft, of really thinking about what works and what doesn't on the page. While I'm writing, I'm never thinking of the merits of first versus third person, or how structure emerges, or the benefits of past or present tense. No writer should be thinking of these things while writing, because they're intellectual, abstract concepts. But it's very helpful to deconstruct these things in a workshop. I often hear myself saying something, while teaching, and think: huh, that's true. I didn't know I knew that.

Dani Shapiro is the bestselling author of the memoirs Devotion and Slow Motion, and five novels including Black & White and Family History. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, One Story, Elle, The New York Times Book Review, The Los Angeles Times, and has been widely anthologized. She has taught in the writing programs at Columbia, NYU, The New School and Wesleyan University, and she is co-founder of the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy. She is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure. She lives with her family in Litchfield County, Connecticut.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

surviving the silent auction (while, let's say, tipsy)


Last year at the silent auction, I was over-served and some serious errors occurred – real amateur moves.

This year, some similar errors were made. (See photos.)

Let's back up. Last year's silent auction.

A. I almost never go out. My life is hermit-like except when we leave town for long chunks of time. Seriously, days pass and I never leave the house. So I'm not accustomed to -- well -- others.

B. I'm a lightweight, I should mention that.

C. I also want to take advantage of an open bar. (Screwed over my whole life by All U Can Eat, my only revenge is KIDS EAT FREE. I try to make up for some lost ground with the democracy afforded us by the Open Bar.)

After two glasses of wine, I was laughing too loud. After three, I'd dabbed my fingers in my wine glass and spritzed my neck -- Did I think it was perfume? Did I want to cool down? This wasn't clear.

Rookie mistake: I blurred my bidding number and basically spent an hour bidding as 302 and the next hour retracing my steps to outbid 302 with 301, my correct number. (Sorry 302, if you ended up with a random salsa lesson.)

And yes I got territorial over a few random items. Which ones? Does it matter in the heat of competition? It’s about winning. And there’s a cause, yes, sure, but it really is about winning. At one point did I say to a friend that I’d like to head-butt that vicious 304 – whoever she is? I did.

I picked up our winnings at the end of the night -- trying not to be surprised by strange items peering up from me in baskets.

Dave loaded up the back of the car. “What the hell is all of that stuff?” he said.

“I swear I saw a bird cage.” We don’t have birds, nor want any.

“ It's just like last year ..." he said.

"Like last year?"

"When I won the deer-gutting equipment and the machete? Remember?" Dave doesn't hunt deer, nor gut it, nor machete things. (I’m actually impressed that he could identify these items in a gift package. We've long since hoisted them off on others who do gut and machete.)

I had no recollection of deer gutting equipment or a machete. Why? Because I was overserved at the silent auction the year before, too, and, I made Dave do pick-up because I’d spritzed one of the volunteers-in-charge with wine -- to make her smell pretty? to cool her off? It was unclear.

I don't bring this up. Instead I said, "Why a bird cage?"

And he said, "Yes! And like a dumb ass, I kept bidding against that viciously insane 301! It was like having a stalker all night. Who the hell was that anyway?"

“Hi,” I said. “Meet your stalker.”

“301?”

“Yes. Let me guess: 304?”

And we shook hands on our dumbassery.


Friday, March 11, 2011

On Charlie Sheen's Poetry (and Violence)

So, don't get me wrong -- I'm kind of jacked about how jacked the American public is about Charlie Sheen's use of language in the past few weeks -- not just USE of language. We're calling it poetry. (And Sheen does have an out of print collection of poetry that someone's gotten their hands on and is leaking. Esquire?)

I'm jacked that the word "poetry" -- even if connected with Sheen -- is getting so much air time.

And, seriously, this is some interestingly manic verbiage --

"They lay down with their ugly wives
and their ugly children
and just look at their loser lives."

"Can’t is the cancer of happen."

"My partying made Sinatra, Jagger, Dean Martin...
look like a buncha droppy-eyed armless children."

Not to mention all the melting faces, weeping, and tiger blood.

Would I prefer America to be talking about Terrance Hayes' National Book Award-winning poetry instead? What's wrong with a little Rachel Zucker, huh?

Still, I've been thinking -- yes, America, language. Let's use it with some drama and flair. Let's unhitch the mind from "we've got to step up our game" and "at the end of the day" and "been there, done that" to something, at least, making some kind of effort at articulation.

But here's the hitch to unhitching: Sheen's unhitched. I'm no psychoanalyst, but his language is violent, dark, egomaniacal -- in a kind of indestructible (self-destructive) I-am-Iron Man way. I've known people who've come unhitched; language changes and things can go badly quickly.

For all of our pumped up, train-wreck-attentiveness to Sheen's spiral (upward/downward or just on crazy spin cycle), we're watching someone who's really sick. People magazine has quoted him as saying to his ex-wife and mother of his children, "I will cut your head off, put it in a box, and send it to your mom," and threatening to stab her eye with a pen knife. His hyped-up manic violent rhetoric defending his carnal lifestyle is fine, but this isn't.

Google "Charlie Sheen Violence Against Women" and you'll see a dark violent pattern of behavior -- starting in 1990 -- guns, knives, restraining orders, busted lip, choking, blow to the head, knocked out, death threats... This history needs to take up a much larger part of the discussion.

We all know it won't end prettily. And watching and listening to it makes me feel guilty and a little sick inside. Maybe he's speaking to a lot of people's inner self -- the one that is tired of conforming, tired of ordinary, boxed-up, tidy living -- who want a little tiger blood, who want to live an unapologetic "bitchin' rock star from Mars" life.

That's not my reaction. Watching Sheen makes me think of his family who's known him since he was just a little boy -- back when maybe we was a "soft target," and all the sweeter for it.

Mainly, it makes me want to get snuggle in bed and be an ugly wife with an ugly husband, hugging my ugly kids in my ugly house with my ugly dogs.

In other words, long live our loser lives.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Prude Responds to Rock N Roll

The Prude Responds to Rock and Roll

I have legs but don't know how to use them.
I'm out of sugar but if I had some,
I would not lend you any
nor would I feel comfortable pouring some on you.
I'm not a beauty and that’s not alright.
It's upsetting. When I think about you
I don't touch myself or if I do it's only to readjust
the Kleenex up my sleeve. My body
isn't a wonderland.
It's more like a wicker furniture showroom.
I don't own a fruit cage, to my knowledge.
(What's a fruit cage?) When you claim
you’ll take me to a place I’ve never been before,
which, can I mention, you say a lot,
I do need you to be specific before I consent.
And yet part of me
inexplicably irreversibly
wants you to want me --
because regardless it's been a long time.
In fact, it's been a very long time --
a long lonely lonely lonely lonely lonely time.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Jeff VanderMeer

AND HERE IS:

the P. Diddy of Oddity

the Master of the Monstrous


the Reigning King of Weird


and the Keeper of the Greatest
Cabinet of Curiosity
in the World...

Open your eyes
and take a glimpse into
the VanderWorld of VANDERMEER*



Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

The cloud forests of Peru. The logistics of giant floating bears. The biology of a terrestrial sea anemone. How luna moths could actually be transmitters to alternative universes. The uses of komodo dragon spit. Why the geckos that replaced the anoles on our house’s outer walls have now been replaced by anoles again. Why a kiwi might have been loitering in our yard last week. The repurposing of spaces in occupied cities. The difference between meat-world book covers and ether-world e-book covers.

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?

Yes. I realized suddenly it had been five years since I’d had a nonfiction collection out and I wanted to pair my fiction collection, The Third Bear, with a nonfictional counterpart, in this case Monstrous Creatures. All of the essays, articles, and reviews, several of which appeared in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and NYT Book Review, are explorations of the monstrous in fiction and, in a few cases, in real life. Of course, this idea was somewhat diluted by a delay to the nonfiction book of about a year.

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

Nothing is better than writing. I love the rough draft. I love the re-envisioning, rewriting, revising. I love being immersed in the emotion of it and I also love the problem-solving later on when you’re faced with some kind of knot or snarl in the text or the story. I get very irritable when I’m away from fiction for very long.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Get them to give you an account in your name containing $20,000 as a counterbalance to all of the financial instability they will bring into your life. Only then let them kiss you. This may sound mercenary, but you will thank me in the long-term. You will all thank me, in your multitudes.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Well, it would help if they were kind and generous and cute and funny and loved your work but could tell you when you’ve messed it all up and didn’t mind that you were moody sometimes and liked the same movies and music and always saw the good in you and never talked bad about you behind your back and were patience with the kind of absent-mindedness you develop when immersed in a novel and that you traveled well together, not caring if you got lost and instead of staying at the swank villa you wound up in some old farm eating rustic bread and chicken livers and home-made liquor with the farmer’s family. But that would just be like some kind of dream life, wouldn’t it?

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

I was a shy child with a goofy sense of humor growing up overseas as the child, with my sister, of Peace Corps parents who decided a divorce spread out over ten years would be a good thing. I was a moody little brat and developed a severe antipathy to being bullied or seeing others bullied, which meant I got into a few fights. We lived for awhile in Fiji, where my asthma acted up and I was allergic to the beautiful red-flowering trees, and I loved it there no matter what, and we would go out to the beach and look for shells and sometimes see the reef at night. I can remember, too, the traveling, and being on oxygen in Cuzco from the asthma and looking out my window, the hotel abutting a mountain, and seeing two hummingbirds, emerald-and-crimson, mating on the wing. And another thousand amazing things besides, so I think I’ll forgive my parents completely, and say that how it shaped me as a writer is simply this: life is bittersweet and miraculous and funny and sad and so many other things that you can never really get it all down on paper, but it feels good to try.

Jeff VanderMeer is an award-winning writer with books published in over 20 countries. He is often cited as one of the best fantasy writers of his generation, and one of the internet’s next-gen “internet writer-entrepreneurs” along with creators such as Cory Doctorow. In addition to winning the World Fantasy Award twice, VanderMeer has won several international awards and NEA-funded grants. VanderMeer has worked with rock bands The Church and Murder by Death, 30 Days of Night creator Ben Templesmith, Dark Horse Comics, Halo, and Playstation Europe on various multimedia projects, including music soundtracks and short films. Over 200 short stories have appeared in a variety of year’s best anthologies and other venues, including Tor.com, Conjunctions, and Black Clock. His nonfiction has appeared in the Washington Post Book World, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, and the Barnes & Noble Review. With his wife Ann, he is also an award-winning editor profiled on Wired.com and national NPR’s All Things Considered. Forthcoming anthologies include The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins), and The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic).

*
Jeff, that is. Not to be confused with the fantastic(al) Ann Vandermeer --
we'll get to her. All in good time.

A 1/2 Dozen for Catherine McKenzie


Bestselling novelist Catherine McKenzie

talks about how a novel first appears in her mind,
when she knows she can't shake it,
and must commit;

how to handle criticism;

and the books we that might
be flying below our radar
but shouldn't be --

as well as a bit on love.

HERE GOES:



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?

I don't think there was a singular moment of inspiration - my book is about a woman who uses an arranged marriage service - but I do remember the idea popping into my ahead and thinking that it was a good idea for a book (ah, hubris!). That being said, once I had the idea, I had to see if it led anywhere - once I have an idea for a book it usually floats around in my head for a few months. If I can't shake it, if I keep coming up with ideas and characters etc. (and if I can see the ending), then I know I have a "real" book and I start to write it.

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

I think my relationship with the page, like my relationship with many things, is a day-to-day experience. Sometimes I love it, sometimes I curse myself for doing it, sometimes I have to push myself, sometimes it's effortless. I've found I have a general pattern with each book: word 1 to 20,000 = fun. Words 20-60,000 = work. Words 60,000 to the end = hey it's fun again.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Expect to be less real to them sometimes than the people who are talking to them in their head. Don't take it personally, they're just a little crazy.

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

Don't give up too early and head down the self-publishing route. I might be being a little controversial here, but if you really believe in your product, you have to believe that someone else will too. And that someone else - your agent, your editor etc. - will have invaluable suggestions to make to make your work the best it can be.

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

Obviously nobody likes criticism, but I've found my reaction to it depends on what quarter it comes from. When it's from someone on my "team" - friends who are early readers, my agent, my editor - I take it very seriously. I have a rule - if one of them says to change something, I think about it. If two people say it, I change it immediately; they know something I don't. Criticism in the form of reviews can be challenging; particularly when it feels like the reviewer hasn't read your book very carefully, or you can't understand why it was given to that person to review in the first place. But the paradox is: the more successful you are as a writer, the more criticism you're going to face. Dan Brown probably has had thousands of bad reviews; I've had a fraction of that. I'm not saying I feel bad for the guy, but you need a thick skin in this business for sure. That being said, when people say they never read reviews, I have trouble believing them. I certainly don't have the discipline to look away.

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

I am a constant reader. I often have several books on the go and have been trying to discipline myself lately to finish something before I start something new. And funny you should ask about sleepers ... I actually started a Facebook group precisely because of two books that I read and loved by Shawn Klomparens (Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain) that I thought weren't getting the attention they deserve. We've got almost 3,500 members now and list of great books to check out: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=113149048727107


Catherine McKenzie was born and raised in Montreal, Canada. A graduate of McGill University (B.A. ‘95 in History (Hons)) and McGill Law School (BCL & LLB ‘99), Catherine practices law in Montreal. Her first novel, SPIN, was published by HarperCollins Canada in January, 2010 and was a national bestseller. Arranged was published in January, 2011 and is also a national bestseller. She is at work on her third novel.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Dear Phil Collins, Don't Kill Yourself.


I read this post on why Phil Collins is calling it quits -- and I hate us. We suck. It tells the back-story of the brutal backlash against Collins' success. (You don't see Bono and Sting worrying over this stuff. Why? Because Collins really is a sweetie, I'm pretty sure, deep down.)

Now, I'm all for creative backlash -- Nirvana stripping it down. That had to happen. But the personal stuff? Why do it? Who cares? Should Phil Collins not want to be Phil Collins anymore? Should Phil Collins prefer someone call him Philip, just to get an inch away from himself? Should he want to "write himself out of the story" -- should he want to kill himself? No.

We, as a collective culture, make and unmake people. Every time I see a picture of Michael Jackson, later in life, I feel the weight of collective guilt. That is someone we made -- from a very very young age. Not that I'm against personal responsibility. I'm not. But when someone is so very made by a culture, so publicly assembled, we have to shoulder some of the blame of their undoing. I'd prefer, deeply, that Phil Collins stay alive -- and working. (I believe that art and making can keep people alive.)

Basically, I'd like to write Collins a letter.

If I did -- and where would I send it, we're not close -- it'd go something like this:

Dear Mr. Collins,

I came of age in the 80s, came of age with your music as global soundtrack. By the mid-90s -- when the fake news story about you asking for a divorce via fax, for example, marking the beginning of the end, hit in 1994 -- I was newly married, pregnant with my first, barely scraping by. In other words, I was busy. I wasn't paying attention to news stories -- fake or real. Phil Collins as antichrist? What?

And I represent a lot of people -- they busy, stupid masses -- who came of age with the same soundtrack, who got distracted by life, who know the songs but not the back story.

Write new shit. We're out here. We're still too busy to pay attention to much more than what's on the radio. We've had more kids, we're still just scraping by in one way or another. We're all just trying to make it across town, in fact -- all just trying to keep the people around us alive.

I, for one, would be happy to bump into you and say, "Hi, Philip. What was your last name again? I didn't catch it."

In other words, let's start over.

(Except for one thing. A few times in my life, I've been at a red light when "In the Air Tonight" is on the radio. And I've looked up and around when the drums set in and in cars -- all around me -- there are people hitting those air drums, in unison -- and it's a weird and beautiful moment when all of these strangers in their cars are tied together. I'd keep that.)


Sincerely,

Julianna Baggott, Today's Ambassador of the Busy Stupid Masses

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Vacation Torah School

VACATION TORAH SCHOOL
or
ADVENTURES IN SUMMER CAMPS


This is our first summer knowing we're Jewish-ISH -- 1/somethingth Jewish -- so my first thought: What's the Jewish equivalent of Vacation Bible School?

Would that be Vacation Torah School? How else to introduce them to this piece of their heritage?

I once sent my two oldest kids to Vacation Bible School. It was at a Catholic school, not the one I went to growing up, but one that had a fair every year and, of course, I wasn't allowed to go because my mother believed that all traveling fairs were deathtraps -- because the rides were slapped up too fast, over and over, and the workers were bound to get sloppy one of these days, resulting in decapitations -- and it wouldn't be on MY mother's watch, no sirreeeee.

Still and all, this was a summer camp and I knew some other people sending their kids and some of the teachers were parents I knew and most of all -- let's be honest -- it was FREE.

I stayed for the first bit -- my kids tend to cling. (I will soon post about the longstanding Baggott-family tradition of Clinging.) There was a video of a small mammal of some sort -- gopher, muskrat, mole? I don't remember. And what this small mammal had to do with Jesus, I couldn't quite suss out. But there would be arts and crafts and snack time. And the kids seemed happy enough.

After Day 1, the kids did seem happy enough when I picked them up.

Day 2, they were just kinda crabby.

Day 3, my son finally had had enough. "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! That's all they ever talk about!"

He had a similar response to French camp. "I don't get it! They have a different word for EVERYTHING!"

And now I remember how much I hated summer day camp. The counselors told us the foam at the edges of the creek was the result of pee and poop. And when they got mean, they dumped buckets of it on our heads -- the real foamy stuff.

(The foamy stuff actually may have had more to do with the Chrysler plant -- in retrospect. And I should have been afraid. Very afraid.)

Could it be that we're day-camp averse -- you know, as a (very specific stew of) people?

Could be.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Glenda Baggott Tries to be a Tiger Grandma


It's kind of the saddest thing ever.

For those of you who read my essay "For the Ladies in My Mother's Book Group," you may well know that Glenda Baggott -- my mother, the hyper-phobic matriarch of my people -- would brag about me if I'd gotten early parole. She's no tiger mom.

So, when she tells me she's had a little private talk with my 10-year-old son -- and she raises her fist as if to say, I really got him pumped up -- I'm thinking, Really?

My mother's advice to me when I was going off to college was this: "It's hard. You can't read all the books. They assign too many. Don't read them. They don't really expect you to anyway. Get C's. In college, C's are really good grades..."

Her advice going off to grad school was this, "Don't fall in love with a poet." (I did so immediately.)

And, in a last-minute moment of pure panic, she blurted, "You'll be the prettiest one there!" Not that I was pretty, it's just that she assumed the other writers would be less so -- writers, after all, being the types to hole up in attics.

So. My mother in the role of Tiger Grandma? I'm doubtful.

She says, "Well, I really gave him a talking to. I told him how smart he is and then I told him that he has to be #1 in his class. All the way to the top! That's what I said!"

And then she grabs my arm and quickly adds, "Well, of course, I also told him not to worry if he gets a bad grade. I mean, we all get bad grades, and it's not really any big deal. And maybe there are other kids who'll be #1 but that's okay! I don't want him to get -- you know -- upset..."

Glenda Baggott: Kitten Grandma.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Emily Rapp

A (stunning) 1/2 Dozen
with memoirist Emily Rapp
who talks about
her complex relationship with the page,

her compulsions,
her life with brutal honesty and grace,

what writing can be,
plus feminism, religion, and grief.


(Read this one all the way through.
The first Answer may be for
serious readers and writers
but from there on
her words here
speak to all of us.
I seriously recommend her blog
at ourlittleseal.wordpress.com .)


Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.


Vindication by Frances Sherwood is one of the best novels I've read in decades; my writer friend Tara Ison recommended it to me while I was re-reading Frankenstein and happened to let slip my long-standing artistic fantasy of writing a new biography of Mary Shelley. Sherwood's novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the watershed text and hugely influential A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (and mother of Mary Shelley, who appears in one of the final scenes of the book -- see above obsession) and known, in both popular and academic circles, as "the mother of feminist thought." Sherwood's portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-and-then-not-so-young woman is wildly imaginative, brutal, fascinating, and downright euphoric. The synthesis of history, imagination and poetry is like a feat of engineering -- practically rhapsodic in parts (at least for this reader. There's also a jubilant, dripping scene in a sweltering summer garden involving Mary W., William Blake, and Blake's wife that is not to be missed.) Sherwood is unflinching (and lyrically brilliant) in her interpretation of this complicated, magnetic woman (any female artist who has been chastised for being "too much," "emotional," "moody," "strong-willed," but also simultaneously "inspiring," "fascinating," and "luminous," and understood that the mix of these traits is considered potentially off-putting when manifested in a woman but not in a man, will relate). Sherwood makes heartbreakingly clear the price Wollstonecraft paid to be touted in Women's Studies classes all over the world as a "pioneering feminist." (Wollstonecraft herself would most likely have disagreed with this distinction, and she certainly would not have understood it the way modern readers do.) The novel can be tough-going; life was a hard slog for most people during Wollstonecraft's day, specifically women and children without financial means or a male protector, and she was not spared her own troubles: she lived through a childhood characterized by neglect and violence, was privy to the effects of wrenching poverty and disease that were real-life dangers for London city dwellers, and, much later in her life, bore witness to the almost daily beheadings in Revolutionary France, where she'd traveled to rabble-rouse with her revolutionary friends, many of whom were swept off to the guillotine under the cover of night. She survived several misguided and disastrous love affairs and two suicide attempts. The novel takes risks in terms of voice, and I think experimenting with voice is one of the riskier things writers do. I was simultaneously enamored with and disgusted by the main character, and I couldn't wait to read what happened next, not only because the story was compelling, but because the language was so poetic and surprising and the portrait of the historical woman so textured and alive. On an "otherwise" note, I'm obsessed with the BBC series Downton Abbey - anything involving costumes and manors and country dances and intrigue-among-the-servants and I'm hooked, and watching it on our elliptical trainer is a happy way to pass 50 sweaty minutes. I also have a decades-long crush on Hugh Bonneville, who plays the father in the series. And I still go back to police dramas, because I struggle (as many writers do) with endings, and at the end of a Law and Order episode, the "perp" is usually found. Nice and neat and there's even a nice swelling of melodramatic music to punctuate the denoument. I also like the faux-cop lingo that's tossed around on the show, and I've always had a ridiculous but tenacious daydream of being a detective; I suppose the desire to be a biographer is a nerdier and less dangerous way of attempting to make that fantasy a reality.


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?

Two months ago my son Ronan, who was nine months old at the time, was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurable genetic disease that will take his life before the age of three, at which point he will most likely be in an almost vegetative state. I have a congenital birth defect myself, so out of frantic (read: paranoid) concern that my child would NOT have a birth defect of any kind, genetic or otherwise, I had every possible prenatal test that was available to me, and often at considerable expense. Of course we were stunned when we received Ronan's diagnosis because I'd had the blood test for Tay-Sachs (even though it wasn't recommended based on my ancestry) and, as the record states: "no mutation was detected." Two days and several doctors into the diagnosis however, and I felt like I'd gotten a degree in genetics. As it turns out, Tay-Sachs is NOT a Jewish disease, but the knowledge that those with affected children have (and too late) has simply not made it to the desks of most genetic counselors or those who train them. And, as my brother-in-law said as he was watching the twin towers fall on 9/11, "I can't believe I'm awake for this," I felt a similar sense of shock, betrayal, and the yawning void of fear and grief as the doctor explained to us that our son would eventually lose his mobility, his vision, his sense of touch and smell, his hearing, and finally - his life - over a span of a few short years. My first impulse was "I've got to record this," perhaps as a way of remaining awake or reminding myself to stay awake and/or alive; I felt it was important to stay grounded in my identity as a writer/mother (and this last part I had just gotten used to) before I became the "disabled woman writer/mother with a terminally ill child who won't live to see his fourth birthday." In other words, I wish this had never happened, I hate that it has happened, but because it has happened and because it is, right now, the main story of my life, I feel an obligation to record it. Writers write. If we can't write about the most horrific experiences of our lives then what's the point?

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

My relationship to the page, at least at the moment, is driven by need. I need the space, the time, the escape, the act of creation for its sake alone. Writing from the inside of this experience is helping me survive it, although it's hardly therapeutic -- it's the hardest thing I've ever done. Apart from the subject matter of this recent project, which I wish I'd never had to wrangle with, the experience of that need to write, as an artist, feels like a rare and terrible gift. I never believed writers who said, "I have to write," but I certainly feel like I MUST write this book. Is it a compulsion, a habit, a way of creating order, something to do to avoid grief? I don't know. Whatever the reason may be, the pounding need is there. I've also never had the experience of composing in my head, which has also been happening with this book. I don't know if it's because the grief and anger and fear are pushing the words our or what, but I can't seem to write fast enough or often enough. Of course much of what I'm generating will be reworked or chucked out, but the impulse to generate is stronger in me than it's ever been. I'm a trained theologian and the daughter of a minister, and I've been thinking a lot lately about John Calvin's ideas about "being called" to particular tasks in our lives, or even to particular moments. Calvin felt that every human life was pre-designed, and that rather than this being a restrictive concept or a limiting framework, it set individuals free to follow their hearts in some palpable way that had practical consequences. Calvin believed that if you felt tugged or pulled in a particular direction, that was God pulling you there; there were no accidents. I feel that very strongly in my writing life at the moment, although it's less of a pull and more of a violent yank. In the Lutheran ministry, pastors are "called" instead of "hired." I always thought it was kind of a dopey concept (especially when my dad was being "called" to rural Nebraska and my brother and I had to move there as teenagers!) You can't pick and choose the circumstances that bring you to the writing chair; you just have to go there when you're called. So - and I never thought I'd say this -- but my relationship with the page at the moment is one of genuine gratitude.

Writing Tip #12 for Aspiring Writers

As a writer interacting with other writers, or just people in general, don't suck all the air from the room. Let other people breathe and tell their stories, too, even if you're burning with your own. Remember that being an artist is different from being famous and requires a different set of compromises; figure out which set you're willing to live with.

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

I was a melodramatic, romantic, nerdy, morbid and bratty kid with a temper who used to snoop through people's medicine cabinets at dinner parties -- smelling their cologne, reading their prescription labels, pawing through their hair nets and pins and jewelry. I grew up in a church and in small town Wyoming, and from an early age I appreciated older people and their stories, as well as impossibly wide skies, unpredictable weather, and wind. I was also a ritualistic kid, and I loved the rituals of the church; for example, call and response psalms or liturgical settings. Although I don't believe the content anymore, I still think it's powerful when an entire group of people speaks with one voice -- about anything, really. (And I'm still deeply and almost obsessively -- is there any other way? - ritualistic). I think the melodrama and the romance and an early life reading Bible stories steered me towards the "epic" stories, stories with real life and death consequences. In Wyoming there is more landscape than there are people, so place (with the exception of this current project) is almost always a starting point for me. I have to fall in love with a place (which usually means having a complicated relationship with it) before I can set a novel or a story or an essay there. I suppose this most recent project is about ideas and experiences that are not as place-specific. I also had a nomadic first few decades -- from state to country to city to small town, always on the move, always building a new life -- so I think I became more anchored to place in my work because my lived life and day-to-day experience was changing radically and often.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

David Bradley handed me back a story that was covered in four different colors, but he provided no "key" to unlock the meaning of those colors; his comments didn't indicate why certain passages were colored in one way and not another. I rocked up to see him during his office hours, frantic and talking a mile a minute. What did it mean? Why was part of the dialogue scene in pink and the rest in green? What was up with the big block of yellow on page 4? Did he like my story or what? Did he think I was a good writer? Could he help me? He looked at me calmly and said, "You figure it out." Eventually, I did, and in the process I learned a great lesson about balance, about consistency, plot, sentence rhythm, and story. It took months to solve the puzzle, but I'm still reaping the rewards today.



Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, as well as many essays and stories. A former Fulbright scholar, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award and the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Bucknell University, and she has received grants and awards for her work from The Atlantic, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Jentel Arts Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Valparaiso Foundation. Educated at Harvard University, the University of Texas-Austin (where she was a Michener Fellow), Trinity College-Dublin, and Saint Olaf College, she has taught writing at Antioch University-Los Angeles and with the Gotham Writers' Workshop. She is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She loves old dogs, trashy pop music, long hikes, costume dramas and books that are big enough to prop open a door. She lives with her husband and son in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Check out her blog at ourlittleseal.wordpress.com and on Open Salon (www.salon.com) or visit her online at www.emilyrapp.com.