existential death spiral

Existential, adj: pertaining to existence.

Deathn.: 1.the act of dying; the end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. 2. an instance of this. 3. the state of being dead. 4. extinction; destruction. 5. manner of dying.

Spiral, n. Geometry. 1. a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. 2. a helix. 3. a single circle or ring of a spiral or helical curve or object. 4. a spiral or helical object, formation, or form. 5. Aeronautics. a maneuver in which an airplane descends in a helix of small pitch and large radius, with the angle of attack within that of the normal flight range.

This is one of those things that we never want to talk about. Keep reading if you dare.

When I started my Ph.D., I had a quote-unquote “manageable” amount of student debt. I won’t tell you how much, but it was kind of like having a lot of credit cards. I had those, too, but they were also relatively under–control.

And then.

And then.

And then.

I thought to myself, what’s a little bit more? I mean, certainly I will be the one who will come out of this Ph.D. program and get a job right off the bat, right? They can’t take it away from me; education has no price. Right?

And yes, I got a job. It’s full-time. It comes with very good benefits. It’s much better than many of what my fellow English-Ph.D. folks are coping with (cobbling together miscellaneous part-time gigs, which come with lots of commuting and not-a-lot of pay). It’s a good job, and I’m lucky to have it, and every day I enjoy it, and that means something. But there’s kind of a little financial problem.

(I’m not tenure-track. At all. Not. At. All. And the pay difference? Well, it’s in the neighborhood of $30k per year. So there’s that.)

Here’s the thing with my own history: yeah, well, a little bit turned into kind of a lot (cue Guns n’Roses song now). And, this past weekend, as I completed and contemplated the consolidation application that took a frighteningly short amount of time to fill in, it occurred to me that I could have a really nice fucking house for the amount of money my various degrees, when all put together, have cost me.

But they can’ t take it away from me, goddamn it. Those degrees are mine. I earned them.

Truth be told, all is not lost. Thanks to the federal government’s IBR (income-based-repayment) option, it’s more like having a really nice car than a beach house in Antigua. But the problem is that I also need a car. My ’98 VW, yeah. It chugs and staggers. I mean, it’s something. It usually gets me where I need to be. But it moans too much and I’m afraid to take it on the highway. The Craigslist ad might say this: “it doesn’t smoke or leak, and you can plug in your iPhone 4!”

Anyway, I digress. As I tend to do. I keep fantasizing that super-agent will get me a fabulous book deal that lets me write while I teach, worry-free. The irony, of course, is that none of what super-agent and I have going has anything to do with my degree. In a fictional world, I could have written the novel with no degrees whatsoever. Problem? I needed existential death spiral to inspire it. I’ll let the novel explain that on its own.

But, shit, that’s yet another digression. So, here, I’ll be serious for a minute: it strikes me that we need to do something about this larger problem, in the humanities, of student debt. This is not an unfamiliar topic: I remember being told something along these lines: “only accept a spot in [insert graduate program here] if they pay you decently and you get health benefits.” Okay, I did that. And now I have a fucking beach house in Antigua that I’m too busy to visit. Or maybe just a goddamn reliable car.

Here’s what we need to say—this is what I will say, given that I could land a tenure-track job this year and have students who actually give a shit about my advice: “if you can’t imagine doing anything else? And I mean anything else. Then do it. But think long and hard about what that means.”

Pause. Eyebrow gestures.

“Okay, so, you can’t imagine doing anything else. Then think about what kind of goddamn existential death spiral you’re making for yourself. The job market is shit, at best. You won’t be ‘the one.’ So what are your plans?”

Blank-faced look. Eyebrow gestures. Maybe a squeeze of the nose-bridge.

“I mean it. What do you plan to do?”

Blank-faced look, maybe with a lowered eyebrow. “I want to teach.”

And what do I say? Do I tell her not to go to grad school, even though it’s the only thing she’s ever wanted (to be a writer-slash-teacher, which is the only thing I ever wanted?)? How do I talk her out of it, especially if she has talent? I don’t. But, shit, someone needs to be honest. Someone, please. Just be honest. I will be honest.

I had a prof in my M.A. tell me I’d be better off with an M.B.A. than a Ph.D. And, yeah, financially speaking, I probably would be. Here’s the thing: I worked in business for a while. At the time, it seemed like a long time. And I had this weird shit happen where I started to not be able to look myself in the eye in the mirror. Chalk it up to having to fire a guy on Christmas Eve (thanks, HR!) or myriad other fucked-up things (thanks, HR!). Chalk it up to whatever you want. I could have been a business shark, wearing power-suits and not giving a shit about anything except the bottom line. I mean it: I could have done that. But instead, I’m an assistant professor and a writer. And, honestly, I’m happy. Much happier than I would be with an M.B.A., methinks.

Big deal: I’m happy in spite of the goddamn existential death spiral.

And that’s saying something.

I mean it, though. What do we tell these fresh-faced young, talented, people? What do we say? We have to be honest. So maybe we give them some Camus and call it a day. Maybe something else. You tell me.


motivation. n. 1. The act or an instance of motivating, or providing with a reason to act in a certain way. 2. The state or condition of being motivated. 3. Something that motivates; inducement; incentive.

Sometimes I struggle with the motivation thing. Sometimes it’d be easier to pick a random (probably shitty) TV show and eat ice cream while I binge-watch all thirteen seasons. Instead of, you know, doing responsible adult things like preparing meals and getting regular sleep and going to the gym and fulfilling the requirements of my job while moonlighting as a crime writer.

Okay, that’s a lie. I don’t struggle; I’m pretty motivated, all told. I tend to get shit done when it needs to be done, even if I don’t want to. Is that still motivation? Either way. Type-A personality. You know where I’m going with that. (Note to self: blog post about Type-A personality forthcoming.)

Lately, my incentive has been this: “if you do [insert odious task], you can write fiction and/or (usually and) have beers.” Call it the crime writer’s curse (we’re often motivated, strongly and sometimes unfortunately, by alcohol). Call it whatever you want. It motivates. Both of those things motivate me; I hear my protagonist’s voice in my head, asking me what the fuck I’m doing and why I’m neglecting her. She’s kind of high-maintenance that way. She motivates me.

Another one? Having [insert odious task] just being done and off my desk. That feels good. It means I can write the thing on the to-do list and then cross it off right away, which is one of my favorite motivational tools.

Lately, my main function has been that of motivator, which is a totally different thing. By that, I mean this: I teach first-year writing at a large public university in the Midwest. One of my main jobs, which I have to do well if I want to enjoy my job, is to figure out which fires to light under which asses. And so far, even though this is my first year of full-time teaching and I was a little wigged out there for a couple of weeks, I think I’m kicking ass as a motivator. By that I mean that I enjoy my job. A lot.

I’m my own goddamn motivator. Seriously, I mean it. I mean, there are things I have to do (grade the papers, finish the manuscript, draft the second novel so that super-agent can try to sell two instead of one, etc.), but the other things? I just wouldn’t do them if I wasn’t such a goddamn motivator. It’s all about figuring out which fire to light under my own ass.

Here are my upcoming tasks, some less odious than others:

  1.  Write blog post, since you’re a complete slacker in that department
  2.  Rewrite prologue. You know what I’m talking about.
  3. Respond to those first drafts that you’ve had for two days. (only half done? Only half crossed-off)
  4. Write that goddamn conference abstract, if only because then you’ll do interesting research that might lead somewhere.
  5. Consolidate your goddamn catastrophic student debt and figure out how to pay it back without blowing a goddamn gasket and/or retreating into an existential death spiral.
  6. Send those two short stories out for review.
  7. Send those two articles you’ve been working on out for review.
  8. Write blog post about goddamn catastrophic student debt. Call it “existential death spiral” or “mistake” or some such thing.
  9. Write blog post about Type-A personality.
  10. Finish drafting Murder Book.

That’s the title of the next book. It’s very meta. I hope you’ll read it when it emerges from the womb of whatever publisher decides to sign me. I hope that a publisher will sign me and put my prose in its womb. This is getting weird. I’ll stop now with the creepy metaphor.

In the meantime, think about motivation and what it means. It’s kind of a big deal. If I were one of my students, writing about it? I might write something like this: “In today’s society, motivation has been a big deal since the beginning of time.” And then someone like me would step in and ask a bunch of annoying questions, meant to motivate a big revision to that sentence. I mean, what? Really? Since the beginning of time? Nothing has happened since the beginning of time. But you’re right about contemporary American society. Can you draw that out a bit more? What’s the most interesting thing about what you want to say? Why does it matter? Who cares?

But whatever, I digress. I did the things on today’s list, so I’m off to have a beer or three.


dilettante. n. 1. A person who takes up an art, activity, or subject merely for amusement, especially in a desultory or superficial way; dabbler.

2. A lover of an art or science, especially of a fine art.

Interesting combination of definitions, there. On my Twitter profile (something I actually have, now that I’ve been living in the twenty-first century for 14 years), I describe myself this way:

Writer of literary mysteries. Reader. Teacher. Powerlifter. Musician. Bibliophile. Audiophile. Feminist. Optimistic nihilist. Dilettante.**

Which makes me a dilettante, right? I mean beyond attaching that descriptor to myself. Look at the list. What does that suggest, beyond the obvious “existentialist” label?

And yeah, I’m an existentialist. Consider that a note to myself to write about it one day.

Anyway. I came back to fiction writing after a long hiatus (see previous post), during which time I wrote a bunch of academic articles and a dissertation. (Graduate school, in case you didn’t know, has the potential to kill not only your interpersonal relationships but also your creative spirit.) I came back to the craft as a dilettante, but somehow became much, much more serious about it than I ever have been about anything else. I mean, we have gone beyond superficial dabbling; I have decided that this is what I will do with the rest of my life, as a happy addendum to teaching. And it’s infected me; I am infected. I have spent my entire summer plotting and writing. I have become so connected with my characters that interacting with real, actual people has become a challenge. I have become the cliché. And that’s okay with me. I can’t explain why, but it is. I’ve never worked harder in my life. And that leaves me exposed, my raw underbelly right-side up for kicking or stabbing or stomping or whatever other horrible thing could happen.

My therapist, counselor, shrink. Whatever you want to call her. She’s lovely, by the way—she even knows I’m a dilettante. Anyway, she keeps giving me “homework” that involves shit like this: “spend at least four hours with people this week who are not your significant other or your fictional characters.” Also, “interact with strangers more. Be interested in what they have to say.” And, yeah, I met my mark this week, and totally enjoyed completing my assignments (will the strangers appear in the next novel? What about the friends? Only time will tell. Wink, wink). Will I do my homework next week? That, in addition to reminding me of eighth grade, remains to be seen (for what it’s worth, eighth grade was one of the many years in which I didn’t do much homework). She seems to be used to fucked-up creative types. I guess I’m one of them, and I guess it’s reassuring that she gets it. I depend a lot on external validation, so I’m looking forward to seeing her approve of me when I tell her I did what I was supposed to do and that it felt good. That said, depending on external validation is really fucking hard for someone whose creative pursuits are mostly solitary. It’s a goddamn paradox.

Unrelated thought: when I was in my early twenties (I know—it’s shocking that I’m no longer in my early twenties, to me if not to you), my mom, who is a voracious reader, decided that I should write a bestseller. I laughed it off. Me? Write a bestseller? Well, I can’t say much about how well a yet-unpublished book will sell, but I can say that I wrote the book and beta readers like it and my agent is invested and kind and all of those things. And now, when I’m not fucking around with blog posts (stay tuned! A letter to sixteen-year-old me is on its way!) and Twitter accounts, I’m writing the second book in the series as I revise, again, the first. Hemingway was right about a lot of things. Go read his thoughts about writing and tell me he was wrong.

And I’m just gonna say it, the thing I’ve been thinking, through my don’t-blog hiatus and even as I type: I didn’t start this blog with any intention of making it about writing. I mean, among the fucking bazillion things that could link all these posts. . . . It’s just sort of turned out that way. Writer-types tend to be isolated, though, and I guess this is my way of reaching out to the world beyond spending time with friends and talking to strangers at the grocery store. That said? There’s more to come. And I think it might be even more compelling than what I’ve come up with thus far (shocking, I know). I mean, I’m interested in a lot of things (dilettante), so by default I should hit those things here. Right?

Here’s a song. Great title and great guitar solo. Listen if you dare. Ignore the Eckhart Tolle (of all the fucking things in the universe) ad in front of it.

**Follow me on Twitter if you want. I mainly re-tweet existentialist quotations and meaningless writing updates. K.E. Birdsall. You heard it here.


hiatus n. 1. A break or interruption in the continuity of a work, series, action, etc. 2. A missing part; gap or lacuna. 3. Any gap or opening. 4. Grammar: the coming together, with or without break or slight pause, and without contraction, of two vowels in successive words or syllables, as in see easily. 5. Anatomy: a natural fissure, cleft, or foramen in a bone or other structure.

I had to take a break.

It wasn’t a break at all; I just didn’t write any blog posts for, what, six months? I think that happens sometimes. Sometimes there just isn’t much to share. I’d rather give you something more interesting (an admittedly subjective term) than unabashed naval-gazing. You’re welcome.

Here’s the update, in case you’re interested in the fissure in my blog and want to bring everything together:

My agent and I are on revision #5,675,554 of Forms in the Shadows. Of course I’m exaggerating. It’s more like revision #1,761. I’m still exaggerating. But you get the idea. I’ve never revised more in my life; it’s a different book. And I’ve learned—and am still learning—about process, about what works and doesn’t work, about the conventions of genre and what readers may or may not want and about which rules to break and which to follow. I’ve always believed that all learning is good learning, even if it stings or burns or bruises you while it’s happening. I’ll leave that there for now.

(Said agent, whom a friend of mine calls “super-agent,” gives me the kind of careful feedback that I’ve always craved. I have no idea how I got so lucky to sign with her–she took a huge fucking chance on me–but hey. Better not to ask too many questions where such things are concerned.)

I finished and defended my dissertation (successfully). So now I’m overqualified for almost everything and have about a million dollars in student loans to worry about, but the diploma on my wall reminds me that the past five years weren’t wasted. Goddamn it, I did it. And now I’m on hiatus from “academic” writing, even though I have three articles underway. It’s just for a while. A short break.

I’ve been writing fiction like mad again, and yet I’m not completely sure that I trust where my muse is taking me right now. I’m not questioning it, at least not in the daytime. Sometimes I lie awake at night and worry. But, hey, there’s time. And if it doesn’t work? On to the next. That’s what revision is for.

I taught a fabulous summer class on women in contemporary comedy and got myself a full-time teaching job for next year. This is good, because my partner wasn’t looking forward to working two, maybe three jobs, and medical benefits are always a plus. Teaching three classes a semester. . . we’ll see how that bodes for writing time, but hey. I’ll call it a learning experience. And I belong in a classroom; my teaching persona is much more interesting than I am, and I like hanging out with her.

That said, the paradox is that right now and through August, I’m writing full-time, exploring, and loving it even when it terrifies me. I have my ass in this chair for over eight hours a day (though I typically take a day off on the weekends), and that thing we learned in our creative writing classes is true: write every day and call yourself a writer. You can write complete shit, but you’re a writer. Most of what I write is shit. But I’m a writer, and sometimes that shit crystallizes into something that I might want to share with someone someday.

In case you’re bored, here’s a new writing exercise I came up with that seems to be working for me right now, even if it might give the impression that I have a personality disorder (as if referring to my teaching persona in the third person didn’t do that already):

Compose a fake email exchange between your narrator/protagonist and yourself, in which you discuss the direction of the story (or character, or setting, or whatever is giving you problems). I began by asking her where the hell she was. It took her less than two hours to reply; she’d been there the whole time. When I first started doing this? I thought I’d gone completely round the bend. But then I had some sort of weird creative epiphany; it broke me out of the pseudo creative block that I was wading through; it’s getting me into a side project, a weird piece completely outside my genre (gasp!). The second book in the Elizabeth Boyle mystery series is coming along, too, even though at one point I tried to do weird shit like outlining, which drove me to drink. Outlining never works for me, and I know it. A story happens organically, at least for this writer.

So that’s that. Thanks for reading.


revise v. 1. To amend or alter: to revise one’s opinion; 2. To alter something already written or printed, in order to make corrections, improve, or update: to revise a manuscript.

1567, “to look at again.” From re- “again” + videre “to see.” Meaning “to look over again with intent to improve or amend” is recorded from 1596.

purgatory n: 1. (in the belief of Roman Catholics and others) a condition or place in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venal sins, or undergo the temporal punishment that, after the guilt of the mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner. 3. Any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like. Adj. 4. Serving to cleanse, purify, or expiate.

Think about the connection for a moment.

I’ll tell you how I view this pair of definitions. “To revise” actually means “to enter into a condition that is much like purgatory.” You will suffer. You’ll atone for whatever terrible thing you did in your draft or manuscript or whatever you call the thing you’re revising. If you’re like I am, you’ll make a big mess of whatever you’re revising and then you’ll fall into a weeping, slobbery pile, which (as the symbolism might tell you) will purify, cleanse you of your writerly sins. You’ll lie there in a heap until you pull yourself together and get typing or cutting-and-pasting or whatever it is you need to do. If it’s winter in the Midwest, you’ll take your vitamin D and use your happy lamp and meditate on the fact that spring is coming; with this in mind, you’ll get your goddamn revision(s) done and then celebrate with a bottle of whiskey and inappropriate dancing.

Or maybe you won’t celebrate at all until you get feedback from your boss or your director or your agent or editor or whoever you secretly hope will tell you that your revision is, without a doubt, the most brilliant thing she’s ever read. That it should go into print right now, that [insert name of your favorite press] will publish it right now, and that no more revisions need to take place.


I’ve never been much of a reviser, so you might not want to trust my description of this process. I will say this: I’m becoming more acquainted with revision, and I’m trying my damndest to pretend I’m Joyce Carol Oates, who 1) has no personality; she said so, and 2) thinks revising is “fun.”

Watch this if you don’t believe me:

Joyce Carol Oates Video

If revising is “fun,” I’m missing out on some serious good times. One thing I have in common with JCO is the fact that I don’t know how many things I’ve written. Ongoing projects? Can count them on one hand. But everything? Who knows? (And, perhaps more importantly, who cares?) One thing I don’t have in common with her is that, maybe unfortunately, I know exactly how much money I have in the bank. And it’s not much.

Here’s the thing. I think I agree with what she says about (lack of) personality, assuming that she’s exaggerating. But how can we tell if she’s exaggerating if she has no personality? How do we know?!

What happens to me is that I become my protagonist.

That was hyperbolic. I’m sorry.

What I mean is that I become her shadow; she becomes my shadow; we dance a complicated dance, in which she directs me and I argue with her about how things are going to go. This is really no different than being a kid who has an imaginary friend. It’s just that I’m a grown woman and I hope that my imaginary friend can one day surprise and delight an audience. And, at thirty-something, it’s socially unacceptable to argue with a fictional character in public. Right? (Hence the whole “I’m locking myself in my home office until I finish this” thing that happens.)

Honestly, though, the whole protagonist/me thing is a character flaw. Mine, not hers. Just ask anyone who talks to me while I’m writing or, as one might have it, revising. It might mean that my shadow’s voice is compelling and that people want to read about her experiences, but, alas, my own personality, which is ordinarily pretty strong, you know, with a decent sense of humor and semi-interesting things to relate to others, erodes into some abyss and is replaced with hers. She has her own set of flaws; I remind her of this on a regular basis as I rewrite her story. And so we dance into a spiral that ends. . . where?

I’d love to hear other comments about this (heavily edited) Oates interview. Or “visit,” or whatever the New Yorker called it. Do you know how many things you’ve written? Do you know how much money you have in the bank? Do you have a personality? Is revising fun?

(Disclaimer: I revised this post three times.)


narrative. n. 1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious. 2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story. 3. the art, technique, or process of narrating: Somerset Maugham was a master of narrative.

Sometimes, when I’m someplace other than my house, I watch people. Okay, always. I’m that creep in the corner staring at you and looking away when you make eye contact with me. My partner has kicked me under restaurant tables for doing this, probably because sometimes I forget to participate in conversations as a result of it. Or because it’s weird. Either way.

But it’s not just watching. It’s storytelling. I’m spinning a narrative. Making shit up in my head about people I don’t know, occasionally recording the most interesting details in a notebook that I think of as my “reporter’s notebook,” even though I’m not a reporter and I usually forget the notebook at home. When I do have the notebook, it usually functions as someplace to make lists and/or obsess about things other than narrative. Whatever.

Take, for example, that guy over there right now, reading the Morrissey autobiography with his headphones on? He has Morrissey hair. I bet he’s listening to the Smiths. He’s tall and has his legs outstretched under the table. I’m surprised by how young he looks. Frankly, I didn’t know anyone still gave a shit about Morrissey, at least until Penguin released his ridiculously long autobiography which, based on what I gather from reviews, sounds very much like Morrissey’s song lyrics in its almost-painful self-consciousness. I’ve also heard that he participated in NaNoWriMo and is planning to publish a novel this year. I’m not sure yet if I’ll read it.

I digress. This guy is probably a psychology major. He’s thinking right now about the psychology of Morrissey. Later, he’ll go home and Skype with his girlfriend, who lives in a different state, and he’ll try to convince her—again—that the queen is dead and every day is like Sunday.

He keeps coughing. He caught a cold this week from the brunette in his math class, with whom he flirts. The girlfriend doesn’t know that he does this; he doesn’t see anything wrong with it, because it’s not like he acts on any of it. It’s just innocent flirting.

Because this is for a blog post, I’m recording many more details than I typically would of his—I mean my—narrative. Any notes in my reporter’s notebook would probably look more like this:

Morrissey a/b

“ “ hair


Skype gf

Later, if I look at that page of the notebook as I hope for inspiration to find me, I will have forgotten the details about how tall the guy is, how his legs are stretched out so far, how young he looks as he turns those pages of the book, how he taps his hand against the table in time with whatever song plays through his earbuds. So I’ll have to spin it from what I have, and the notes that I took won’t give me an accurate picture. I’ll never get the moment back. I’ll have to make him a completely fictional character.

You know, as opposed to a “based on a true story” character.

But it’s more likely that I’ll never look at the page again and that Morrissey-guy will never make his way into my writing.

Wait a minute.

I guess the moral of the story is that some version of the guy might, one day, end up in something (else) that I write. Then again, he might not. I use him here as a mere example—and for that, I guess I apologize, since outside of my little narrative he’s a real person with a name and a life and probably a family, and I just made him into some kind of character from central casting just to illustrate a point about process and contemplate, in a purely subjective and perhaps irrelevant manner, the word “narrative.”

(In other news, I had to look up who Somerset Maugham was since, in spite of myriad degrees and though the name rang a faint bell somewhere in there, I’m an ignorant jerk. Whatever, I’m an Americanist, so I have good reason. Maugham was British. [Do you like that disclaimer?]

Wikipedia tells me that W. Somorset Maugham was the highest paid author during the 1930s, at least in Britain. He seems like an interesting guy who wrote interesting things; I’m especially interested in The Magician, which is purportedly about Aleister Crowley—or, to be fair, it’s a fictional narrative about someone who sounds a lot like Aleister Crowley. I read the whole Wikipedia entry.

I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know much about Maugham until now. And here’s another disclaimer: I always tell my students that Wikipedia isn’t a legitimate source. But, you know what? Maybe it is. It struck me as I was reading that even Wikpedia is a collection of narratives.)

It’s all narrative. We can’t get out of it; it’s how our brains work; I’m pretty sure a bunch of philosophers and E.L. Doctorow have said as much.

But here’s a question, one that’s driven me professionally, if not creatively, for the past several years: how do we decide what makes a narrative “legitimate”? Does it have to be “high art,” you know, literary fiction of the kind that the academy sanctions?

You probably know by now what my answer is to that last question, but I really am intrigued by the first one. Is the legitimacy of narrative purely subjective?


(The academic in me says of course not; it’s culturally determined.)

But maybe it is subjective. Just maybe.


resolve. v. (used with object). 1. to come to a definite or earnest decision about; determine (to do something): I have resolved that I shall live to the full. 2. to separate into constituent or elementary parts; break up; cause or disintegrate (usually followed by into). 3. to reduce or convert by, or as by, breaking up or disintegration (usually followed by to or into). 4. to convert or transform by any process (often used reflexively). 5. to reduce by mental analysis (often followed by into).

resolve. v. (used without object). 1. To come to a determination; make up one’s mind; determine (often followed by on or upon): to resolve on a plan of action. 2. To break up or disintegrate. 3. To be reduced or changed by breaking up or otherwise (usually followed by to or into). 4. Music. to progress from a dissonance to a consonance.

“Resolution” is a noun. It’s the thing that some of us make that signifies some change in behavior or attitude, which is (in theory) supposed to begin on January 1 of each new year. I prefer the verb. I adore verbs. I tell my students that verbs mean everything; verbs, by their very nature, carry the most weight, wield the most power, possess the strongest potential of any part of speech.

This year, I resolve a few things, which I hope will help to bring aspects of my experiences into consonance from dissonance (I love that definition). I have thought this through by breaking things down into constituent or elementary parts, and I vow to convert or transform my behavior by some process that is yet to be determined. By doing so, I have come to a determination, and the conclusion that I’ve reached has led me back to resolving. To the desire to make consonant what is dissonant.

I used to promise myself that I would change outward behaviors. One year, I resolved to start exercising. And I did. Now I freak out if I can’t get to the gym at least four times a week, and I find it odd that I used to be physically lazy. A couple of years later, I resolved to quit smoking cigarettes. And I did quit smoking, much later in that same year, and now I think it strange that I ever smoked.

Another year, one that came before the “work out” and “quit smoking” resolutions, I resolved to be a caring nurturer, which existed, in my mind at the time, in opposition to the way that I perceived myself (and, in all likelihood, how others perceived me, too). I think I’m a much more caring nurturer than I was when I made that resolution back in 1999 or whenever it was.

It’s remarkable how fifteen years can mellow a person, even one with a temper like mine.

It’s funny that looking back on all of these times I’ve had resolve fortifies me, right now, in the present. Okay, it’s not funny. It’s actually kind of nice.

I don’t remember when I resolved to write more. Maybe I never did. Maybe I should have. Maybe I will.

I resolve to write. To be a writer. To think of myself as a writer, and not to let fear or pragmatism or whatever-that-feeling-is stop me. I am a writer, goddamn it. I am.

There it is. Done. Look, I even put it in italics, just to make it real (since we all know that anything in italics is automatically more important than everything else, right?).

I’m not going to tell you the rest of what I’ve resolved for 2014. I will say this: I’ve identified dissonance. I know what things to break into elementary parts. I’ve taken it all apart and put it back together again in a way that I think might resonate more pleasantly starting tomorrow, when the plan becomes action.

We shall see.

In other (perhaps related) news, I know what the second mystery novel is about. I even wrote a synopsis. So I suppose I should make the book happen. Such a happy idea: I will visualize myself as a writer, and that image (and, in all likelihood, behavior to accompany the image) can exist alongside my resolve to finish that pesky dissertation. Because finishing a dissertation, my friends, that takes true resolve.

resolve. n. firm or unwavering adherence to one’s purpose.

I resolve to write.

Happy New Year.

profane agnostic

Profane. adj. 1. characterized by irreverence or contempt for God or sacred principles or things; irreligious. 2. not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular (opposed to sacred). 3. unholy, heathen; pagan: profane rites. 4. not initiated into religious rites or mysteries, as persons. 5. common or vulgar.

Agnostic. n. 1. a person who holds that the existence of the ultimate cause, as God, and the essential nature of things are unknown and unknowable, or that human knowledge is limited to experience. 2. a person who denies or doubts the possibility of ultimate knowledge in some area of study. 3. a person who holds neither of two opposing positions on a topic: Socrates was an agnostic on the subject of immortality. adj. 4. of or pertaining to agnostics or their doctrines, attitudes, or beliefs. 5. asserting the uncertainty of all claims to knowledge. 6. holding neither of two opposing opinions.

We’re a little off the beaten path today. Just go with me.

For some reason, the definition of “profane” reminds me of an academic conference I recently attended. I’d given my little twenty-minute spiel, in the way we do; a guy in the audience, who had what Dave Eggers would call “creative facial hair,” was especially receptive and asked good questions. (Why do I keep making reference to Dave Eggers? I promise to stop.)

(As an aside: I use a lot of profanity in my day-to-day speech. Call me common or vulgar; I might be either one of those things. But I saw something on the internet recently that suggested that this fact might make me more likable and trustworthy to others. I’m going with that. Why? Because, fuckin-A, why else? My fictional protagonist also uses a lot of profanity. I sometimes worry that this will turn off otherwise reasonable readers. Then again, maybe they’ll understand that her potty mouth makes her more likable and trustworthy to others.)

Academic types bond over good questions. We love that shit. We sit there and secretly hope that someone will ask an unanswerable question, at which point we will respond with this line: “that’s a great question, though it’s a little outside the scope of my argument. What do you think?” And then the person will launch into a six-minute explanation of what s/he thinks. We live for it. I kid you not.

And if you don’t know how academic conferences go? I’ll tell you. We all arrive at a hotel, which is usually overpriced for what it is. We give fifteen-minute synopses (see “Synopsis,” only it’s different) of what lights our academic fires in the moment. We hope that someone will say something that we can write down, something that will change the whole trajectory of our thinking. Or, more realistically, we hope that everyone in the audience will tell us how brilliant we are. Egos stroked, we descend onto the hotel bar, where we drink beer and play a game called “spot the other academics.”

After the panel, during which I gave my Important Paper that Someone might Like to Cite Someday, I’d planned to attend what looked like a kick-ass group of papers on popular culture (my academic cup of tea)—I don’t usually plan to attend anything at these events, so even dog-earing the program and drawing a star in the margin meant something, at least for me. A friend and I stood in the hallway by the hotel elevator, waiting to get to where we needed to be and hoping for an escape route, when receptive-good-question-guy-with-creative-facial-hair approached us and said, in as many words: “There are only four people in my audience right now; it’d be great if you could attend my panel. I’m giving a paper on atheist conversion narratives, and it kind of connects with your questions about authenticity.” He wasn’t talking to my friend; he was talking to me.

Goddamn it, shit. Bloody hell, man, are you serious?

Now, this could be an opportunity for me to launch into my answer to the question of why academic-types so often seem like jerks (or, in the spirit of this post, “such fucking assholes”), but I think that probably deserves its own post. Instead, I’ll just give you a little narrative that will, I hope, show you that I try not to be one of those jerks.

Me: [thinking] Okay. Atheist conversion narratives? Right up my alley. I mean, I’m no atheist—I hate labels like that, as a matter of fact—but he had me at “conversion narratives.”

My friend: I’m bailing.

Elevator: BING. [people get on and leave the scene]

Me: I think I have to go to his panel. [thinking: I’d really like to go back to my room and work on my novel.]

My friend: Why, because he asked good questions at your panel?

Me: Yeah, and there are only four people in his panel, and I feel bad.

My friend: Good luck with that. We’ll get a beer after.

Anyway. I ended up in a panel that sounded great on paper: Literature and Religion. I mean, what’s not to love? In my own academic work, I do a lot with “literature and religion,” whatever the hell that means, so I thought it might be fun. But then I saw what the panel was really about. And I immediately fell asleep, way before anyone started talking.

Not really. But I definitely started to plan how I could get out of the room, which was just dimly-lit enough to be depressing and just warm enough to have a soporific effect, without anyone noticing or taking offense—I actually care about shit like that. Maybe my guy is talking first, and I can feign an important phone call and leave when he’s done. Nope. He’s talking last. Last. After various people ramble on about various things. Okay, next plan: I’ll sit here in the back and play with my phone until he gives his paper, at which point I’ll pay attention. Then I’ll ask a couple of good, hard questions—you know, return the favor—before I jet and get some beers.

Right. Sounds like a plan. Right?

What struck me, though, because I’m unable to truly tune out if someone is giving some kind of presentation (I’d never want to be rude that way, though I did check my social media accounts a couple of times in the course of all this, albeit behind the cover of the conference program), is that these people were conflating “religion” and “Christianity.” When this dawned on me, I looked again at the program. Oh, right. Two of them are from a university that wrote a job ad this year that would have been right up my alley . . . if only they hadn’t just fired a woman for marrying her partner.

So then I started thinking about that, as a young (seemingly impossibly young, at least from my thirty-something vantage point) woman was talking about the Trilogy and how it did or did not relate to Milton. You know, Milton. And, you know, marrying your partner and getting fired from a tenure-track job for it. And I heard various friends’ voices in my head, telling me how smart I am for not applying for that job, even though what the ad actually said, basically, at the end of the day, was that they wanted me to apply. I heard my own partner’s voice in my head, clamoring for equal rights and this and that. But ultimately, in the sanctity of this seemingly sealed room, I returned to this question: at what point in time did “religion” become the same as “Christianity?” And then I heard the young woman’s voice again. She was doing that thing that too many women do: she ended every sentence with a question mark? So then I started thinking about that and simultaneously wishing that I were anywhere else in the entire goddamn world, academic or otherwise. I started thinking more and more about beer. The things we do for kindness.

Anyway, dude with creative facial hair eventually got around to giving his paper. And it wasn’t bad, not really, but he played a little linguistic game in which “atheist” became the same as “agnostic,” and it bothered me, in spite of his visual aids, which included all of the books to which he made reference. He said something about wanting us to see how “dark the covers are.” It didn’t get under my skin so much because I identify as “agnostic,” but because he was so dismissive of both “agnostic” and “atheist”; he kept making it seem like they were the same thing, and he insisted on these faith-based arguments that I wanted to deconstruct, right there in front of what promised to become some kind of weird revival meeting. So if I’m following this, I kept thinking, agnostic and atheist are the same thing, and they’re both opposed to religion and Christianity, which are the same thing.

And it did: it became a revival meeting. I kid you not. I felt like I was in a surrealist painting at a couple of points, you know, the one where the clocks are melting. So after I asked my two pointed questions? I left and got some beers with people who know the difference between the two A’s that threaten Christianity—I mean “religion.” At dinner/beers I talked to a couple of young graduate students who needed to be reassured that, if they don’t feel like they’re doing it all wrong in the first year? They’re doing it wrong. Rites of passage. Anyway.

Hence “agnostic.” I’ll open this to you: what do you think “agnostic” means, aside from what the dictionary says? Can it apply to more than just faith/spirituality/religion/whatever-you-want-to-call-it?

Because I tell you what: lately, and in spite of my vigorous search for tenure-track employment, I’ve become agnostic about a lot of things, especially as they relate to higher education. What are we all about, anyway? Where we stake our claims to authenticity? What do we really mean when we say things like “digital humanities” and “critical thinking” and whatever else we might proclaim? Are these definitional problems, or conceptual ones? Let’s open that up to comments, too. Have at it.

For what it’s worth? I’m a profane agnostic. Define it however you want.


pre-school, n. a school or nursery for preschool children; adj. of, pertaining to, or intended for a child between infancy and school age.

Mrs. Medvic was one of my pre-school teachers and an inveterate turd. I remember various things about her, like her big blue car that made a funny whining sound, her too-tight jeans, her permed hair, her cold blue eyes, the old-lady smell of her generously applied perfume. Mostly, I remember her as my reason for hating pre-school. She was the kind of woman who would become enraged with my inability to fall asleep during nap time, so I perfected the art of pretending to be asleep before I was five years old in order to escape her wrath. She would force me to eat fish sticks every Friday, claiming that I would learn to like them if I gave them a fair chance, as if I could somehow ignore my gag reflex and get over my hatred for the vile, limp rectangles which polluted my otherwise inoffensive paper plate. One Friday, “trying” the fish sticks made me vomit.  In front of all the other kids, she accused me of making myself puke just to spite her. Every Friday following that fateful one, she withheld the rest of my lunch until I tried the fish sticks. I stubbornly refused, as I did not wish to be humiliated by barfing my brains out at the lunch table. I was denied chocolate milk, a fruit cup, a granola bar, or anything more edible than the disgusting, slimy, undercooked, wretched fish sticks. I was always hungry on Friday afternoons, and I began to hate Mrs. Medvic. (Now, we have a word for this: “hangry.”)

She once punished me for my literal interpretation to the question, “Who is the line leader today?” I was standing in the front of the line, so I proudly replied that I was, in fact, the line leader. Unfortunately, some other nameless child had been designated to hold the coveted position for the day. I was doomed to skip recess for three days so that I could think about what I had done, though I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t lying or being a smart-ass. If I was in front of the line, I was the line leader!  Instead of trying to relate with my misunderstanding of the question, evil Mrs. Medvic focused her reptilian eyes upon me and growled in a cruel, dark voice, “You will be punished,” as if having to spend every afternoon with her wasn’t punishment enough.

I never told my parents anything about this, as I felt that it was somehow my fault that I couldn’t eat fish sticks or remember that there was a secret list with the name of the day’s line leader. All I said was that I didn’t want to go to pre-school anymore, to which they replied, “It really isn’t that bad, is it?  You just hate the idea of going to pre-school. You get to play with other kids, right?  Don’t you like them?”  The answer was simple. No, I did not like them, especially since I was the kid who barfed at lunch and had to suffer their jeers every Friday. Even if I had liked any of them, Mrs. Medvic erased any joy that I may have found there. I resented my parents for sending me to such an awful place, and began to realize that grownups are jerks. Was it really possible that they didn’t see how I longed to stay home and play with my Legos, draw pictures, read, and create my own reality, where I was in charge of my stuffed-animal kingdom? Were they really going to force me, day after day, to attend that horrible place, fake naps, and go hungry on Fridays?

Yes, they were.

They had adult responsibilities that I couldn’t comprehend, like jobs. And it’s not like I told them about the fish sticks, anyway.


weird, adj. 1. Involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny: a weird sound; weird lights. 2. fantastic; bizarre: a weird getup. 3. archaic. concerned with or controlling fate or destiny.

It all started the summer before seventh grade. Back then, in the early days of the internet, I had a computer that booted from a floppy disk and had a primitive dialup connection: I would click on “connect,” and then the modem dialed the number, which was followed by a series of clicks and screams before the ever-familiar whoosh: I was online. I became an addict, overcome by the realization that there was a whole world outside of the medium-sized midwestern city where I lived. My romanticized images of mysterious strangers in my pre-adolescent mind kept me in front of the screen for hours.

I communicated with my pseudo-friends on bulletin boards, which are now called “forums.” On these boards, I corresponded with older people about music, fashion, politics, and personal ideals. In retrospect, many of them had to be pedophiles and perverts: why else would a 30-year-old man ask me for my fifth grade class picture? Bill, as I will call him now, was one of these friends. A staunch Republican, he challenged everything I knew about politics, which was really quite simple for me back then: Democrats were good and Republicans were bad. Bill often tried to convert me to the dark side, but I resisted with such force and vigor that our exchanges did nothing but reinforce my beliefs. One of his favorite arguments was that women belonged at home raising babies, a sharp contrast to my own working mother and burgeoning ideas of womanhood and <gasp> feminism. When I raised this issue, he replied with Bible quotes; he was one of those literalists. In retrospect, I imagine him as the kind of man who quotes Leviticus as the primary reason why anyone who isn’t heterosexual and cisgendered will burn in hell. If I met him now, I would inquire about my slaves from neighboring nations. After all, what good citizen doesn’t want a Canadian slave? (I obviously mean no offense to Canada–please believe me.)

I learned vocabulary words from Bill; he was the first person to call me “insatiable.” Of course, being twelve years old, I had to look “insatiable” up in the dictionary, and quickly changed my internet handle to “The Unsinkable KB.” Another word he used was “precocious,” but I was offended by its definition; he hand’t been the first to use that one. I wasn’t a child—at least I didn’t think so. I felt like a grownup and wrote like a grownup, and was irritated by the fact that I had no rights because I wasn’t one. I wanted to skip the whole terrible transition and go immediately from childhood to adulthood.

I received hate mail from a neo-Nazi once. I admit it: I frequently railed against the evils of the American government on a bulletin board dedicated to alternative music, but was caught off guard by, “I’ll sink you, you fucking bitch. Suck on this, you stupid whore!” The email was signed “Zeig Heil,” which I had to look up in the encyclopedia. This set off a whole chain of emotions and stomach aches. I was afraid of this faceless Nazi—would he find where I lived and hurt me? Would he hurt my mom because she worked or my dad because he was a Democrat? I felt a deep sense of shame, not for being critical of the government or for expressing what I saw, at the time, as capital-T Truth, but for partaking in what I knew was a grownup endeavor. Little kids had no place on the boards and I knew this, but I was finding myself—or at least some incarnation of the adult I wanted to be—on those anonymous pages.

I didn’t tell my parents about the hate mail. I was deliberately secretive about my online time: it was mine, and those people (maybe minus the Nazi) were my friends. I did tell Bill, who responded by scolding me for posting such opinions in the first place. He suggested that I visit him in Louisiana, but told me not to tell my parents. I felt oddly creepy at this prospect, but promptly asked my parents for a plane ticket. They were understandably horrified. I remember lying on their bed, with my dad in the rocking chair and my mom perched next to me on the mattress, listening to them explain that Bill might be a Bad Man. I was apoplectic. Dammit, I knew I never should have let them into my secret world. I knew in my heart that Bill was not a Bad Man—my naïveté betrayed my status as a child. My stomachache betrayed my inner conflict about him. I didn’t know, then, to trust my gut.

To our credit, all of this was in the early nineties, before anyone knew about internet creeps. My parents began to monitor my online endeavors more carefully and encouraged me to associate with my existing group of live friends, who bored me to no end. Why couldn’t they be more interesting? All they cared about was pop music and the cute boys in our grade and reading Seventeen. Why couldn’t they see what was really happening in the world? The Persian Gulf War was in full swing, and they didn’t care. They had no knowledge of Nazis, didn’t know whether they were Democrats or Republicans, and exhibited no interest in psychology or philosophy or things like the nascent LGBTQ rights movement. What good were those friends, other than for bike rides and board games?

I began to read the encyclopedia. Not straight through, as I had no desire to know everything, but bit by bit. I began with horses, which I loved, and quickly progressed to England, Wordsworth, Plato, American politics, and music. When it came to music, the encyclopedia was disappointing, as it only covered the classical genre, which I already knew a little bit about thanks to my musical mom. My interests were far broader; after all, I had just discovered New Wave. Bill, with whom my communications had dwindled, began sending me mix tapes in an attempt to convince me that he wasn’t a pervert. I didn’t care about him anymore, but the tapes invigorated me. As I tore into the padded envelope that arrived each week, a small squirt of adrenaline would hit me as I inserted the cassette into my boom box. As each song played, I would memorize the melody and mentally tie it to the song title. Talk, talk. The year of the cat. Sweet dreams are made of this. I do not want what I haven’t got. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Voices carry.

My parents were tolerant. My face-to-face friends began to think I was weird. Why didn’t I care about Top 40 radio anymore? Why didn’t I want to play Barbies? What was the matter with me? What kind of dork reads the encyclopedia and sits by herself in her room listening to strange music, anyway? When their lines of questioning became too painful, I retreated all the way into my room, where my stereo understood me, and became a true introvert (alternately, “a teenager with an attitude”; you decide). I got myself a guitar, pair of Doc Martens, an asymmetrical haircut, lots of black T-shirts, some eyeliner, and a Walkman. A new nonconformist, I took back the adjective “weird” and made it my identity. The more black I wore and the more people didn’t understand me, the less likely they were to ask me annoying questions about myself. This contented me and became my way of life until those dreadful middle school years were replaced by smoking pot and playing guitar in a rock and roll band.

But high school is another story.

Now, I have sense of humor about all of it—what teenager doesn’t feel alienated, dejected, angry? It’s a universal plight, albeit one with the power to draw us together in our feelings of separation. Somewhere in the time continuum, most of us discover who we are. We follow rites of passage, and we grow up. If we remember what it’s like to be a struggling teenager, we might be less likely to say asinine things like, “I’d do it all over,” or, “I’d love to be fourteen again.”

I wouldn’t. Once was enough for me.