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 robinsilbergleid.com

Monday, December 7, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Jay Wexler

It's my great pleasure to introduce Jay Wexler -- humorist, novelist, non-fiction writer, lawyer, law professor, hedgehog pet-owner. 

Let the questions begin!

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 wouldn’t say that there was a singular moment of inspiration for Tuttle in the Balance, but as with most of fiction that I’ve written, I had a scene in my head that came to me fairly early in writing the book that I was really excited about and eager to get to in the story.  So in that sense, it was a piece of inspiration that drove me to write the first half of the book, just so I could write that scene.  I remember writing the scene in a McDonald’s in Singapore (they had really cheap and decent coffee) while I was researching something else, and once the scene was written I felt like dancing.  And then soon after that I got another inspired scene in my head that got me through most of the second half.  It’s interesting to me that both of those key scenes took place in the courtroom of the Supreme Court during oral argument—I think that a big part of the overall inspiration for writing the book was to depict a Supreme Court that looks in many ways like the real one but that occasionally turns into something a little different. 

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I’m not religious at all, but religion is very important to my work.  I was raised Jewish and went to Hebrew School for years until I had my Bar Mitzvah, at which point I was out of there.  I had basically a Philip Rothian relationship to Hebrew School, which is to say that I felt every second of it as a nightmare.  I wrote a story about it once.  In high school I announced to my freshman English class that I was an atheist, although after I broke my collarbone playing dodgeball that very afternoon, I did give my position some reconsideration for about a month.  In college, as an East Asian Studies major, I became interested in Buddhism and Taoism, and I wrote my senior thesis on the Chuang Tzu, which is the collected writings of the second most famous Taoist after Lao Tzu.  I found the stuff fascinating, and as a result I went to graduate school in religious studies.  I only lasted a year, but when I got to law school I did a lot of writing about religion and the First Amendment, which is one of the subjects I now teach.  I’ve published one book about law and religion, have one more coming out in March, and am supposed to be writing another one that will come out in 2018.  Religion is an important part of Tuttle also—the main character gets really into the Chuang Tzu, and when his Catholic colleague insists on writing about his religious faith in a controversial opinion about pornography, Tuttle wonders what the law might look like if he were to approach it from a Taoist angle.  Hint: it would be odd.

What’s your take on touring? 

I’ve never published a book with a publisher that was able to send me on any kind of a tour, but I love doing reading events, so I set them up myself whenever I can.  To me, the readings might be the best part of publishing a book—you get to meet people who want to read your book and make jokes about yourself in front of them—what could be better?  I’m still so excited when someone wants me to sign his or her book—I usually draw them a piece of fruit saying something unexpected.  Plus, whenever the venue lets me, I bring a bottle of Jameson and some plastic cups, because my motto is that “nobody should ever have to bring a flask to one of my readings.”  I’ll be on a mini-tour in the northeast for Tuttle for a week or so in early December with some special guests and cool sponsors.  I’m very excited about it.

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

My pep talks for writers starting out or feeling down take the form of pointing out how terrible a writer I was not so long ago.  When I’m doing a reading, I will often read from my first, unpublished novel, entitled “Arrivederci, Loser,” which might be the worst piece of shit ever penned.  It’s a novel only in the sense that it is 200 pages of words all put together in one file.  The main character is a walking, talking, three-foot high blueberry muffin who suddenly shows up in the apartment of two slacker twenty-somethings named Zatwig and Mumford.  They all end up going underwater to fight a war against some scallops.  The title was taken from a piece of hate mail that my wife got from a friend of hers after we had been going out for about a month back in the fall of 1992.  Anyway, I figure that if the person who wrote that thing could end up a published writer, anybody can. 

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

Not long ago I was “teaching” a workshop about writing humor, and since I have no idea how to teach writing at all (I thought about just teaching them environmental law, but it didn’t seem like what they’d signed up for), I thought hard for a week or so about what advice I might give the aspiring humor writer.  I came up with a top-ten list, and probably the most important one is to “mine your pain and humiliation.”  Not particularly innovative, I realize, but worth reminding people about.  So much of my writing draws on mortifying moments from my past.  Indeed I just wrote a sex scene which draws from one of those moments.  Which leads me into another one of my tips for aspiring humorists—“write about sex, yes, but make it bad sex, because good sex isn’t funny.”

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I had all sorts of jobs before I went to law school.  I was a paper boy for the Boston Globe when I was twelve. Later in high school I was a bank teller--probably the worst bank teller in the history of Boston’s North Shore.  Once I cashed a guy’s pay stub instead of his check.  I would have cashed anything—a McDonald’s Gift Certificate, a paper bag, a baseball card.  In college I worked as a librarian’s assistant, a telemarketer (okay, only for one day), a stockboy at the local gourmet grocery store.  A couple of the wicked Boston-y guys who worked at the store called me “College Boy” or even just “College.”  One time one of them who worked the butcher counter held up a ham hock and said, “hey College Boy, what kind of meat is this?” and I said “umm, ham hock?” and he said “I don’t belieeeeeve it, he gohhhtt it.”  I almost took a job as a door-to-door meat seller, but it was totally on commission so I turned it down.  I taught English in Taiwan for a year, worked as a legal assistant at a dicey American law firm in a town called Xiamen, in mainland China (I had to go to the airport to get my stipend, sent by the Hong Kong office with random strangers flying the Hong Kong-Xiamen route), and spent a summer temping in Chicago.  I worked for a week in one of the last smoking offices in the city.  Banning smoking inside of office buildings was a good idea.  None of these jobs helped shape me as a writer.


Jay Wexler is a law professor at Boston University. 
He is the author of four books, including Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church/State Wars and The Odd Clauses: Understanding the Constitution Through Ten of its Most Curious Provisions. 
For more information, go to: www.jaywex.com.