2017 Winter-Spring Roundup

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Reading at Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon, Cheshire Cocktail Bar. January 8, 2017. Photo by Jamie McFarlan.

After I reached my 2016 goal of blogging twice a month (twelve columns for The Kenyon Review Blog) plus other posts on my website—I took a break. My last post of 2016 turned into an essay, an article, a repository of links, lists and quotes—not so simple after all. Writing and revising took many, many hours. I wrote about assembling and creating a manuscript, and then two manuscripts, from individual essays and stories—what I spent the better part of my year doing. I worked hard to compile some resources I had found helpful. Many people read “On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again,” and let me know that. Erika Dreifus also linked to my column in her terrific Friday Finds for Writers. Thank you, Erika! You set the bar high for literary citizenship.

Still, I’m thinking about whether or not it’s actually worth the time it takes to blog. Then I read a post by Ravi Mangla called 2016 Link Roundup, and it’s brilliant—simple links to writing he’s published in the last year—easy access to his work for those who are interested. I wanted to do something similar in this post—an update of sorts—since 2017 has been eventful so far (and otherwise I forget things, my own publications, and what I’ve been reading—time seems to only speed up as I get older).

The year began for me with a reading in January:

  • Rochester Spoken Word’s Inaugural Speak Easy Salon This was a terrific start to a beautifully organized reading series. Invitation only and RSVP required. It really had the feel of intimate salon away from the social media trumpeting before or after. Music, craft cocktails, popcorn, a program, a Q&A. A relaxed Sunday afternoon, time to talk and mingle afterward, receptive audience.
  • My Advanced Creative Nonfiction class and I will be reading at Cheshire (the cocktail bar) at the July edition of the Speak Easy Salon on Sunday, July 9th. More info here.

Publications Thus Far in 2017:

Mad Heart Be Brave: Essays on the Poetry of Agha Shahid Ali (University of Michigan Press, 2017/ Ed. Kazim Ali). I wrote the lead essay in this just-released anthology about the lasting influence of my former MFA professor, the poet Agha Shahid Ali. You can order Mad Heart Be Brave here. Read an earlier version of my essay, “The World Is Full of Paper. Write to Me.,” online here.

Rochester Magazine (scroll to second essay, “From a Distance”). This was my 1st publication in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester’s daily newspaper—Rochester Magazine is a monthly supplement to the paper) in over 20 years (I had another publication when I was in college). The 2017 essay is about my wedding, and the ambivalence I felt about so many traditions associated with getting married.

The Asian American Literary Review‘s special issue on mental health: Open in Emergency. I contributed a short story, “Watch Over Me; Turn a Blind Me,” and a creative annotation of the pieces that made up the “Hacked DMV: Asian American Edition.”  The title link has more information on how to order Open in Emergency, and about the project more generally—it can be used as a tool in classrooms and community settings—a kind of social justice and educational intervention.

Redux: My short story, “Dicot, Monocot,” about friendship in middle school, originally published in the print literary journal Pleiades in 2002, is now available online. “Dicot” is one of my first fiction publications. Thanks to the wonderful editor, Leslie Pietrzyk— for creating a venue for work published in print journals to have a second life online. Leslie is another true literary citizen. On Redux, you can also read a brief, reflective piece I wrote as a companion to “Dicot”—the story behind my story.

Other:

My friend and former student Katie Duane published a lovely Literary Guide to Rochester. I’m thrilled she chose to feature an excerpt of my story, “The Half King.” This story is one of my favorites as well as a valentine of sorts to my hometown.

Most Anticipated Small Press Books of 2017!: I admire John Madera, the editor of the website, Big Other. He’s an example of an excellent writer who is also a real literary citizen, contributing to the larger community of writers and readers. It’s refreshing to see writers championing other writers after the sometimes relentless self-promotion that authors need to do. John sent out a request to writers in 2016 to contribute to his list of new books to look forward to in 2017: my contributions include new books by writers Geeta Kothari and Nate Pritts.

Speaking of other people’s writing, here are some essays and articles I recommend—terrific resources and thoughts by smart, committed writers I know. By posting links here, I hope I can refer back to the essays and that others might read these essays, too. Please let me know if you do—and let the writers themselves know, also. It’s sometimes lonely writing into the void.

Links to essays I recommend:

Karen Craigo’s brilliant and necessary essay, “May I Have Several Hours of Your Time?”  (Thank you, Karen, for writing this. Everyone—at least every woman and every writer and every woman writer—should read this. Let me know what you think. Or better yet, let me know and let her know.

On a similar note, thank God for Melissa Febos’ essay in Catapult: “Do You Want to Be Known for Your Writing Or For Your Swift Email Responses” (relevant especially to women—or maybe relevant especially to me).

Heidi Czerwiec‘s essay, “Anatomy of an Outrage,” in ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People. You have to read the essay—I can’t summarize it. Heidi and I met at the NonfictioNOW conference in 2015 in Flagstaff, Arizona. In her essay, she references a 2016 column I wrote for The Kenyon Review Blog on trauma and privilege.

Claudia Rankine’s “I Think We Need to Be Frightened” (highlights from a talk she gave at BAM, published in LitHub). On her thoughts on the current political climate and reality in the US. A must-read.

Ravi Mangla‘s creative nonfiction essay, “Seven Months,” made me cry. In front of him. Just after reading this piece, I burst into tears. It was embarrassing (crying in public), but you should read it. His essay appears in the beautiful, newly-launched magazine, LitMag.

Thank you, Neil Aitken, for this blog post in de-canon: “Writers of Color Discussing Craft—An Invisible Archive.” There are links to SO many important resources and articles here. Please take a look and bookmark it. I was glad to see a link to The Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, which hosted a forum about Yi-Fen Chou and appropriation—one of my essays is included here.

On Ordering Essay (& Story) Collections: To Try & Try Again

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Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage—one of the essay collections I read in 2016.

Earlier this year, I assembled a hybrid manuscript (short stories and creative nonfiction essays) and an essays-only version and sent both out to several places. My manuscript was a finalist at three presses this spring and summer, which was encouraging. A few of the editors, writers, and friends who read my manuscript generously provided some useful feedback. Then I took some time to consider next steps.

In September, I had lunch with Sabina Murray, a fiction writer who teaches in the MFA program at UMass Amherst. We were talking about the challenges of selling a hybrid manuscript and she said, “Think about when you go to a bookstore and pick up a memoir or a novel. You are looking for a different experience in reading one over the other, right? We have different expectations for nonfiction versus fiction.”

That made sense to me, even though, given the interest in books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen or Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, it is also a good time to be publishing “hybrid” work. For what it’s worth, Edie Meidav, another fiction writer at UMass thought it absolutely possible to shop and successfully publish a hybrid manuscript.

My takeaway: there’s no one or right answer. These are just decisions we make and go from there. The word “essay” comes from the French verb essay—to try. So much of writing is to try. And to try again.

After putting my manuscript aside for a few months, I decided to try separating the stories and essays, which meant shorter collections of each—but I could also see how they read differently.

In December, I picked up Ann Patchett’s This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. As in any collection, I found some essays more compelling than others. Many of Patchett’s essays had been published elsewhere first (and some were the text of speeches), and while there were certainly themes, Patchett has a strong following as an established writer. Readers would (and did) buy the book whether or not the essays all worked together to create a unified whole. Beyond that, of course it’s meaningful and valuable to hold a book in your hand, all the writing there at once, instead of clicking to this link and that link online.

I read Patchett’s book from beginning to end, and did not skip around. I usually skip around. I realized that’s in part why I had a hard time thinking about chronology and ordering my essays or stories—the order of stories or poems or essays in a book usually does not have much bearing on the order in which I actually read them.

On the other hand, seeing the structure, reading an introduction or forward, seeing subtitles (as in Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist and Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land) did help me to see in part how the writers themselves (and / or their publishers and editors) intended for the book to read. And I appreciated that, could see the value in that.

With a little help from (as Roxane Gay might say) Dr. Google, I found some useful resources:

Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies also has two excellent posts covering recent conference panels on the subject. One is Vivian Wagner’s blog post, “Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books.” This post covered the AWP 2015 conference panel of the same title with Renee D’Aoust (moderator), and Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Philip Lopate as panelists.

From Assay:

Rebecca McClanahan began the discussion by addressing the different ways that essay collections can come together. Some books of essays, she said, cohere organically because of subject matter, style, narrative movement, or repeating images. For essays that don’t automatically hang together, however, she said writers have to grapple with a variety of questions. What should one do, for instance, with events that repeat themselves over and over in various essays? Should the writer edit the essays and place a key event once in the collection? What if some of the essays are in present tense and some in past? What about the fact that people in our essays grow up, marriages end, and we ourselves change over time? As McClanahan said, “our reflections may change drastically from essay to essay. There can be several selves on the page colliding with each other.”

Wagner ended her coverage of the panel with this commentary:

I can’t say I came away from this panel with all the answers. I’m still mulling over my yet-to-be-assembled essays. What I did learn, however, is that putting together a book of essays involves more – much more – than just creating a single Word file and piling essays in it until it reaches 300 pages. And that lesson, at least, is a good place to start.

So true. It’s much more than creating a single Word file!

Next, Heidi Czerwiec’s write-up in Assay covered a panel at the 2015 NonfictioNow Conference (I was lucky enough to attend this panel, too): From the post, “Assay@NFN15: ‘Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection,’”

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. Jericho Parms [panelist] responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.

I scoured my bookshelves and gathered up books of essays and short story collections and studied them—the titles, where the books opened, the tone of the first line of the first essay or story; how each story or essay closed; where the book ended; narrative arc; whether or not they were divided into sections or parts and whether or not those parts had subtitles. I think it’s worth doing this with any of your favorite books of short stories or essays.

Here are some of the books I looked at (some in great detail and others, just skimming or scanning) listed here in no particular order:

  • Joy Castro’s Island of Bones (Essays)
  • Adrienne Rich’s Blood, Bread, and Poetry (Essays)
  • Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem (Essays)
  • James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son (Essays)
  • Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays and The Balloonists (Hybrid/Nonfiction)
  • Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays
  • Douglas Watson’s The Era of Not Quite (Stories)
  • Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Essays)
  • Ann Patchett’s This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Essays)
  • Sonja Livingston’s Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall (Essays)
  • Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth (Essays)
  • Rachel Hall’s Heirlooms (Stories)
  • Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams (Essays)
  • Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (Essays & Speeches)
  • Rick Moody’s Demonology (Stories)
  • Junot Diaz’ This Is How You Lose Her and Drown (Stories)
  • Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth (Essays)
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies (Stories)
  • Laurie Colwin’s The Lone Pilgrim (Stories)
  • Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever (Stories)
  • Susan Steinberg’s three books: Spectacle; The End of Free Love; Hydroplane (Stories)

Ones I intend to look at:

  • Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Essays)
  • Julie Marie Wade’s Small Fires (Essays)

I found the process of ordering my stories and essays and thinking about how the individual stories or essays speak to one other, themes, etc., to be more challenging than I imagined it would be—even though I had done another version of this process in 2013. Or perhaps I knew it—and this is why it took me many years to do it again.

Finally, I had a really thoughtful conversation over email with my friend Nate Pritts, author of several poetry collections. From his email:

These questions, about ordering, are really so crucial. I think about them a lot. I have much I could say. But maybe first I’d say you should trust yourself – reading those first and last paragraphs to see what resonance there is makes a lot of sense. Also, if your instincts suggest coming up with a structure for sections, I’d say go for it, explore it. For me, sections have always been obvious (ie, series of poems, or seasonal) or mysterious (which is to say, I roughly feel like there is a first and second section and organize poems according to those currents).

Maybe just think about the pieces overall. What shapes or recurrences or narratives define what you’re writing about: interior / exterior, journeying and returning, etc. The question then is, for example, if you can ascertain a rough interior / exterior divide, do you separate them or intersperse them for strengthening?

For poems, I tend to print out ALL the poems and spread them on the floor (or desks, whatever, all over the house) and then just walk around reading them and picking them up as I go as it makes sense, if I’m finding those riffs and connections. If these are shorter pieces, maybe you could do that too? Or maybe you could just start with one piece – is there one that seems like a center or kernel? Then what piece of the other 21 pieces goes before it? Or after it? And start working out organically in waves.

Nate’s advice resonated with me. Before this year, I had no idea how other writers came to this process. Like Nate, I had printed out copies of all the essays and stories and spread them across my office. I could see all of the pieces and move them around as actual physical objects—well before any cutting and pasting on the computer.

Many years ago I ordered the stories in my MFA thesis in the final days and weeks before handing it in and the whole process felt rushed and somewhat random—just putting things together in a word document. In the end, it was a thesis, but not a book.

Maybe assembling a book is a little like taking stock of the year—here we are on New Year’s Eve. What’s your story about 2016? Themes, highlights, recurring images? It’s stepping back and seeing the forest, as McClanahan said— (after, for me, counting up, classifying, and mulling over the variety of trees and various vegetation).

Our country’s story in 2016: The rise of Trump. A loss of heart. The loss of so many gifted musicians and writers.

The to-do list: I still have to research long-term care insurance.

Writing: I bought a new desk and two new file cabinets. I assembled manuscripts and mulled over titles and subtitles and epigraphs.

Obviously, there’s much more to the lists than this, but it’s getting late in the day and this blog post is already long. (And I need to take a shower.)

What’s on your list? What are the important pieces and parts and stories of your year?

I wish you and yours health, happiness, wild creativity, and meaningful order in 2017. And to trust your instincts. And lots of reading and writing.

Commonplace Books & Other People’s Words, Post Election

fullsizerender-6On the recommendation of two of my students in the advanced memoir / creative nonfiction class I’m currently teaching, I recently went back and finished Mary Karr‘s excellent The Art of MemoirIn Chapter 19, “Old-School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr suggests keeping a commonplace book: “a notebook where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose out. Nothing will teach you a great writer’s choices better. Plus you can carry your inspiration around with you in compact form.” She includes other great exercises—memorizing poems, writing reviews, and augmenting a daily journal with a reading journal.

I first came across the term “commonplace book” on a former colleague’s syllabus. Martha and I taught at Marymount Manhattan College, and she showed me her syllabus for Narrative Fiction (English 180?), the introductory literature class I would also be teaching. I loved the idea of this—a reading journal.

Both Karr and poet & editor Mark Pawlak, with whom I read last week, mentioned the practice of keeping a commonplace book, and I feel inspired to keep such a book apart from my regular journal—right now they are combined in one notebook so unless I go back to my journals to flag and cull excerpts from what I’m reading, I sometimes lose those copied out passages. In fact, I wrote out the following quotes from Karr’s book in my journal last week. This post will be a kind of online supplement to my commonplace book—I’d like to try doing that and see if it feeds my writing and teaching at all—making some of this commonplace book visible and available. Ideally, it would also be a potential resource for other writers or my students, but also a resource for me to look back at what I found interesting or inspiring. Here are some of her words that struck me.

From The Art of Memoir:

No matter how much you’re gunning for the truth, the human ego is also a stealthy, low-crawling bastard, and for pretty much everybody, getting used to who you are is a lifelong spiritual struggle. Start trying to bring yourself to the page and fear of how you’ll come off besets even the most forthright. The best you can hope for is to rip off each mask as you find it blotting out your vision. (153)

In her chapter on revision (Chapter 24: “Against Vanity: In Praise of Revision”): “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” —quoting Mark Twain

She also quotes from G.H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology (on 217):

I have never done anything ‘useful.’ No discovery of mine has made or is likely to make directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world….Judged by all practical standards, the value of my mathematical life is nil, and outside mathematics it is trial anyhow…I have added something to knowledge and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value that differs in degree only, and not in kind, from that of the creations of the great mathematicians, or any of the other artists, great or small, who have left some kind of memorial behind them.

I’ll add one more quote, not from Karr, but rather from Rebecca Solnit. My friend Gail Hosking showed this to me (pasted into her journal), when I mentioned I’d been crying earlier in the day—still stunned over the results of the election.

The process of making art is the process of becoming a person with agency, with independent thought, a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meanings that may be at odds with your soul, your destiny, your humanity, so there’s another kind of success in becoming conscious that matters and that is up to you and nobody else and within your reach.

This helped, to see what Gail had copied and pasted into her journal. I shared Solnit’s words with my students last night too, all such devoted and inspiring writers themselves. I felt better after reading and discussing their thoughtful work.

I’m sharing a couple of blog posts by writer friends, which also helped to deal with the helplessness, despair, and mourning that engulfed me and so many of us this week.

Recent News

The Cleveland State University Poetry Center announced that my book manuscript, How to Make Your Mother Cry, was a finalist in its 2016 Essay Collection Competition. The other press that recently awarded my manuscript finalist status is also in Ohio: The Ohio University Press’s 2016 Non/Fiction Collection Prize. What makes this ironic is that the essay I wrote last week for the Kenyon Review was about Ohio and my fear of the Midwest.

In other good news, my essay “Married,” was published last week— in the literary journal Waxwing —Issue 9, Summer 2016. I spent my 20s and 30s going to weddings—over 50 of them (I counted when planning my own wedding last year). I love weddings—they are such joyous events— but there was also a point, in my early-30s, when it felt bittersweet to always be attending these celebrations solo.

My friend Elliot once pointed out that part of weddings is about getting single people in one’s community together—that weddings are a good place to meet people. I met people, but never the right ones. This essay is about that time in my life when I attended so many weddings.

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Still of my sister-in-law and me from the wedding video.

“Married,” an essay written about two of many people I did not marry, begins:

We were in the airport. I can’t stay in this moment. You were sweating so much you needed to find paper towels. You found the usual symbol indicating the usual room. I waited for you, by your bags, watched the people on the moving walkway, standing or walking. Here was all of it: the travel and tiredness. The rolling black suitcases and the pale green suits. Read more here.

No One Is Ordinary; Everyone Is Ordinary

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Elizabeth McGovern on the left; Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton on the right. Robert Redford directed Ordinary People.

Here’s a link to my latest essay for the Kenyon Review, in which I watch a movie from the 80s, get sappy about it, and come out about depression. It posted last week on the Kenyon blog, and I’ve heard from lots of people from different parts of my life—I didn’t know how many people loved and were moved by Judith Guest’s Ordinary People—that it struck a chord for so many. index

What If Every Night Were Ladies’ Night? An Interview with Writer Sonja Livingston

Livingston_CVRwithblurb-658x1024International Women’s Day is March 8th and Women’s History Month is March. I’ve always found this both gratifying (to have a day or month set aside) and suspect. To whom do the other days and months belong? And Ladies’ Night at whatever bar or club–who gets the rest of the week? (I think we know who does.) What would it look like to instead consistently foreground and value girls and women?

Creative nonfiction writer Sonja Livingston’s latest book, a fascinating collection of lyric essays entitled Ladies Night at the Dreamland, does just this. She combines history, memory, and imagination to illuminate the lives of enigmatic, little-known American women from the past. Her two previous books (one a collection of essays and another a memoir) are also centered on women and it’s refreshing and necessary to have what is often at the margin (poverty, Western New York, the lives and stories of girls and women) moved to center stage.

I interviewed Sonja, someone I’m enjoying getting to know, over email in March. She lives part of the year in Rochester, NY, and I attended a master class she taught last Saturday, which was terrific (and helped me to get some writing done). Here’s a favorite excerpt from the interview about Sonja’s thoughts on writing. She says:

Paying attention is the main way I feed my writing. There are a thousand quotes about it already, but noticing is everything. In writing, and in life. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my writing is an excuse to make myself notice, and to glom onto people and places without shame.

My full interview with Sonja about her new book is online in the Kenyon Review now. Read more here….