hiatus

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.

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revise

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.

Sigh.

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

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

headphones—Morrissey

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?

Probably.

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

But maybe it is subjective. Just maybe.

resolve

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

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.

process

process. n. 1. a systematic series of actions directed to some end: to devise a process for homogenizing milk. 2. a continuous action, operation, or series of changes taking place in a definite manner: the process of decay. 3. Law. a. the summons, mandate, or writ by which a defendant or thing is brought before court for litigation. b. the whole course of the proceedings in an action at law. 4. Photography. photomechanical or photoengraving methods collectively. 5. Biology, Anatomy. a natural outgrowth, projection, or appendage: a process of a bone.

Disclaimer: I sometimes adulterate these definitions. I use a free online dictionary for these posts, because I believe in meaning-in-context, and I want these particular definitions (denotations, if we’re being picky) to reflect popular meaning. (And because I’m too lazy to hit the Oxford English Dictionary every goddamn time I want to define a word. And because I’m pretty sure that would get really old for my readers, really fast.) I included—or at least didn’t delete—to devise a process for homogenizing milk up there because I think it’s funny. (Sometimes, when people start to take themselves too seriously, I imagine that they’re secretly doing something like curing a pernicious disease or, you know, devising a process for homogenizing milk.)

Anyway, I left the online dictionary’s definition intact for “process,” even though I don’t plan to talk about the law or photography or, alas, milk homogenization. Or even anything especially systematic, unless you count getting up at a semi-regular time and planting one’s ass in the chair and oscillating wildly between feelings of omnipotence (“look at what I made!”) and soul-crushing insecurity (“every word sucks!”) as a system. In the context of this post, in which I will ostensibly divulge secrets about my writing process, I’m especially enamored by the idea of process-as-outgrowth, projection, or appendage.

Appendage. n. a subordinate part attached to something; an auxiliary part; addition. 2. Anatomy, Zoology. any member of the body diverging from the axial trunk. 3. Botany, Mycology. any subsidiary part superadded to another part.

Sometimes writing feels like an appendage makes me feel like an appendage. I diverge from its axial trunk; I exist as a subordinate part attached to it. I type its words onto the page, sometimes making minor stylistic changes when its voice diverges from the one it really wants or when it uses too many adverbs.

I am its typist, its editor, its bitch.

I’m not going to write something clever, such as I feel the writing coming through me and not from me, because that’s only happened a handful of times, on days I wish I could recreate at least once a week. It happened for a couple of weeks straight once, and I think that then I was both the happiest and the craziest I’ve ever been, even though I existed in an alternate universe and I lost a bunch of friends when I (their word) “disappeared.”

Okay, I admit it: I wish it were like that all of the time. I want more of those days when tapping the keyboard feels like playing some complicated, both-technically-dazzling-and-heartbreaking concerto on the piano. When writing and music and art and the beautiful and the sublime converge and it feels like synesthesia as it comes together into pages, paragraphs, sentences, words, syllables, letters, ideas and thoughts that, I swear, came through and not from.

It hasn’t been like that in a couple of months, not since I finished the novel. I guess I’d hoped that I’d be able to keep up the furious pace forever, that page after page would flow through me, over me, under me, as if I were a broken levee.

But no. Most of the time, it’s hard work. Even the “fun” writing, the fiction and the blog posts and the occasional academic article that somehow makes me feel like I’m on hallucinogens, it’s all hard fucking work. Sometimes, when it starts to feel like I’ve been doing manual labor all day instead of just sitting in a chair and I consciously try to stop the despair from creeping, sneaking into my chest, I’ll do something crazy like–<gasp>–make an outline. Outlines have never worked for me; the road to writing hell is paved with outlines that I’ve abandoned. But I make them anyway; they’re part of the process, even though I ultimately abandon them.

I used to think about writing in gestational terms, but then I realized that it’s not growing inside of me.  I’m not going to squeeze it out of an orifice, and I’m probably not going to have to nurture it for, I don’t know, eighteen years. So that metaphor isn’t going to work.

Then I started pretending that I was a coffee pot. I still use the word “percolation” when I describe certain kinds of writing. But that’s not exactly right, either; I mean, I might be “percolating,” but thinking is not the same as writing, and I’m not exactly making coffee up in here; my coffee pot is. Grind coffee, dump in basket. Add water. Hit button. It’s not that simple.

I once (okay, maybe twice) made a joke that I’d be willing to experiment with having a probe inserted into my brain, so that I could bypass the whole act of writing. But that will not do. Because the act of writing, that rhythmic, physical act itself? That’s part of the process.

One of my favorite memoirists, in one of my favorite books—which, incidentally, used to be one of my least favorite books—wrote that, when she started seriously writing, she . . . Aw, hell, I’ll just quote her:

 “One day, when I was typing a story for an English class, I had an aura that ended in an orgasm. I pressed the Q key, and heat went through me; I pressed the U key, and the heat turned into a sweaty shiver, and I came to the sound of I-E-T, quiet, clack, quiet, and each pulse of pleasure was a word, and the words were turquoise.”**

Anyway, I can’t  say with any degree of honesty that such a thing has ever happened to me but, you know, it’s a metaphor.

A good metaphor.

There’s a writing exercise that I do with my students. At some point in every class, regardless of what the syllabus says we’re supposed to be doing, I’ll throw out the lesson plan and have my students draw pictures; part of taking teaching an English class is learning how to do this kind of thing. Anyway, they often look at me like I’m from outer space when I ask them to do it (then again, they look at me like that with some regularity. I mean this in the best possible way). Every time I make this small demand, I draw my own picture, too, just to see if anything has changed since the last time I did it, maybe a semester before. (And to create the illusion of a democratic classroom, but that’s for another post, too.)

“Take out a piece of paper,” I’ll say.

They groan. This might mean there’s a quiz or some such vile thing.

“Draw a picture your writing process,” I’ll say.

Stares.

“I’m serious,” I’ll say. “Draw a picture. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to exist.”

One or two students will dive, often with gusto, into their maps. Someone else asks what I mean. “What do you mean, ‘process’?”

In an “academic writing” context, I’ll watch this question flash across several faces as someone verbalizes it. Someone will say, “My ‘process’ is to write my paper and then turn it in,” which is usually followed by laughter, from either the someone or another. And those folks will get honesty points, but they will still have to draw what that looks like. And this will lead us into discussing process, which is always—and I’m not being hyperbolic—a good thing.

(This definitional challenge happens mostly in a quote-unquote academic writing context and less often in a creative one; in a creative context, by the time we get to this, we’ve already talked about process. This does not mean that “draw your process” makes any more sense. In a “creative” context, the question will be “what should it look like?” or “what do you mean?”

What do you mean is the common thread. Here’s what I mean: draw me a picture that looks like your writing process. Whatever that means. However you define it. Show yourself what happens when you need/want to write something.)

“What do you mean by ‘picture’?” someone else will ask. “Do you mean like a list?”

“A list is fine. Sure, you can make a list,” I’ll reply. Then I’ll show them a couple of examples of how other people have drawn a writing process. I might even show them my own most recent example. I’ll probably draw something weird on the chalkboard that looks vaguely like a tree, or a venn diagram, or a football field, or whatever moves me on that particular day.

process

I drew this one when asked about my own “academic writing” process a couple of months ago. There’s not much difference between this and my “creative process,” minus “theoretical apparatus/lit review.” And, in all honesty, that applies to my creative work, too, because “lit review” means “read lots of books.” My favorite part of the map is the word “EXPLOSION,” followed by three exclamation points. EXPLOSION!!! is my favorite feeling, that thing I was trying to describe before.

(Side Note: I’m sick of this divide between academic and creative writing, the one that I’m perpetuating in this post. I think the two illuminate each other. But that’s a topic for another day. Please forgive me.)

For what it’s worth, I’ve got a few different pieces of writing going right now, and we’re at various stages. One of them is full-on “freak out,” plus a little bit of “percolate” (the second novel). The second comfortably resides in the world of outside feedback (FORMS IN THE SHADOWS). A third is there, too (an article). The fourth is this blog. I’m not entirely sure where it falls on the map. Maybe I need a new map for this kind of writing.

Now, take out a piece of paper. Map your writing process. I’ll do it, too. But, this time, I’m going to depict my ideal process, just to remind myself why I’m doing any of this and not trying to make a living wage by doing something practical, like editing or devising a process for homogenizing milk.

What do you mean?

I mean show me what it looks like. It doesn’t have to be pretty; it just has to exist.

Here’s my ideal:

explosion

** You should immediately run out and buy Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. This quotation is from page 119.

disclaimer

disclaimern. 1. the act of disclaiming; the renouncing, repudiating, or denying of a claim; disavowal. 2. a person who disclaims. 3. a statement document, or assertion that disclaims responsibility, affiliation, etc.; disavowal; denial.

Some of the events that I include (and plan to include) in this blog actually took place. Some of the people are real people with real lives and jobs and things at stake. Some of the themes are actual themes, things that I consider from time to time and that manage to make their way into other people’s writing, too.

So, I’ll encourage you to do with this blog what Dave Eggers suggests, at the beginning of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that his readers do: PRETEND IT’S FICTION. Another disclaimer: I’m not comparing my blog to AHWOSG. My nonfiction writing is far less heartbreaking.

The disclaimer I give at the beginning of the novel looks a little different. It reads like this:

“This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any situation or person, living or dead, is pure coincidence. In other words, please don’t sue me if you think you recognize someone here. . . .

I’ve done my best with the geography of Cleveland, though I admit to inventing quite a few locations and willfully bending some details about the Cleveland police, in favor of characterization and plot niceties.

Please forgive me for the liberties I’ve taken.”

There exists a third kind of disclaimer, too. It looks like this, and should be applied to the “Paddy Wagon” series of posts that are on their way: “An early version of this circulated a couple of years ago. Sorry for repeating myself. Please forgive me.”

What we see, then, are three different kinds of disclaimers. One says that this stuff probably happened somewhere at some point in time (or that I have an over-active imagination, which is possible). The other says hey, there’s no way in hell that any of this happened anywhere, and all these people are figments of my over-active imagination. The third is an acknowledgment of repetition and a thanks-for-reading-this-again kind of thing.

At the end of the day, though, almost every kind of disclaimer, at least when applied to creative work, asks the reader to forgive the writer for liberties that she may or may not have taken. Memory is flawed. Narrative is flawed. We’re all deeply flawed individuals who string words together on a page and hope that someone, somewhere will read them and care about them and want to read more.

Please forgive me.

synopsis

Synopsis. n. 1. a brief or condensed statement giving a general view of some subject. 2. a compendium of heads or short paragraphs giving a view of the whole. 3. a brief summary of the plot of a novel, motion picture, play, etc.

What they don’t include in the definition is that it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever write in your entire fucking life, but you have to write one if you ever want your book to see the light of day and not remain some sad file on your computer that you gaze at, by yourself in your home office or maybe on your couch, from time to time. (Please forgive my profanity—I promise a forthcoming post on profanity, if that makes anyone feel better.) Dissertation? Compared to synopsis, dissertation was cake.

Everything I’ve ever written, from the beginning of my writing life forward, was easier than the damned synopsis. It was easier to generate seventy pages in a weekend, which I had to do to fulfill the requirements of an academic exam. Easier to struggle along through the third-grade penmanship workbook, trying to make the letters look like the model letters, and then getting a D+ for effort. Easier to write a letter of recommendation for someone I may or may not actually want to recommend. You get my drift.

Writing a synopsis sucks. I’d rather do math problems. Hard ones. Trigonometry, with no calculator.

You have to put yourself at such a distance from the thing you love most when you’re writing it: in my case, my mystery novel.

At first, I wrote a thing that I’m embarrassed to have shared with smart, kind people, who gently pointed out, not in so many words, that I was an idiot. Then, guided by their intelligent kindness, I wrote a new version. This one, I feel good about. But it took distance. I know someone who would call it “critical distance.” In the interest of maintaining my use of profanity, I’ll call that what it is: bullshit. Anyone who says that a writer can even dream of “critical distance” between herself and her words is lying. It’s actually pretty simple. Actual distance, as in, a temporal condition meaning that I haven’t read the book in a while or just completed a revision or gone back into it to look for threads to pull into the sequel? Okay, that part is legit. But critical distance? That’s insane. That’s why we pay people to write book reviews. Those people? They have critical distance.

I worked in movie theaters for a good long time; I was even a well-paid member of middle management for a while before I realized that continuing to do so would eventually render me unable to look at myself in the mirror. One of the things I remember about the first movie theater job was the manager asking me to “copy the synopsis” for each of the  films we had going at any given time onto a piece of paper, so that we could answer questions if a customer called. I was sixteen; I copied the synopsis for each of seven movies (I’m dating myself here–now, no self-respecting movie theater has fewer than a million screens). People actually did that; they dialed the number, which began in 666, and asked what every single movie was about. We’d read the synopses, and then go on our merry way. Sounds easy. It’s not easy.

Seriously: trig problems. Send ’em my way.

Anyway, in case you’re interested, here’s my (successful? you tell me) much-revised synopsis. It’s longer than the ones I copied onto a piece of paper when I was sixteen. Because I want you to read the book, I’ve cut the parts that give away the ending. You’re welcome.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Want to read the book? I hope the answer is yes.

FORMS IN THE SHADOWS: Synopsis

Cleveland Special Homicide detective ELIZABETH BOYLE, 35, is awakened from the first hours of sleep she’s had in three days by the buzzing of her phone; she answers and is called to the scene of a crime. Another nightmare interrupted by another murder. She charges to the scene, down in the gritty-industrial Cleveland Flats, reflecting on the fact that the visits to a shrink, mandated after she shot and killed a perpetrator a few weeks before, have left her feeling more vulnerable and exposed than she would like. The shrink keeps talking about the “support system” that she’d like Boyle to develop, but Boyle, at least on the surface, prefers her solitary existence. Besides, she knows she’s a cliché: she’s married to the job.

She receives the phone call following the discovery of a young boy’s mutilated, exsanguinated body. Boyle and her partner TOM GORAN are the team of detectives that CPD calls when such a homicide occurs. They’re about to undertake the most mind-bending case of their careers, in which their personal and professional allegiances—and maybe their sanity—will be tested. Does Boyle’s brother’s DNA at the scene of the crime mean that he’s guilty? Will the criminal ruin Boyle’s career, and maybe the detective herself, with the squeeze of a trigger? Will the media, who seems to know more than it should, derail the investigation?

The mystery plot itself hints at questions of family, of what it means to question blood bonds, and of the thrill of the chase—Boyle’s thrill, that is. But Boyle’s own life is in disarray. She’s only recently stopped drinking herself to sleep every night and having the mindless one-night stands that have always left her feeling empty. She’s only begun to change because her shrink pushes her into unfamiliar personal territory, something that Boyle initially rails against. Ultimately, however, she reveals that she might be more willing to accept the shrink’s help than either of them thought she would—could—be; the questions that remain surround her willingness, or not, to listen to her partner, her one real friend, her shrink, and her boss. Can she obey the bureaucratic rules of the police department? Can she see any gray areas between the black-and-white that has been such a significant part of her life for so long?

Throughout, we both love and hate Detective Boyle. Her conflicts with her drug-addicted mother and brother, her partner, and her friend, her uncanny ability to solve complicated murder cases, and our own sense of a complex kindness (and maybe even a sense of humor) beneath her hard surface leave us wanting more. But maybe we want more than she can give. All of her intriguing supporting characters provide solid points against her, and yet we find ourselves sucked into her life, her case, her narrative, and even into the bizarre retelling of it by an unstable person. The complicated web of deceit that surrounds the case mirrors Boyle’s own, and her personal and family secrets come dangerously close to being revealed as she uncovers the perp’s true motive.

Elizabeth Boyle is a deeply flawed individual. In the end, Boyle contemplates the fine line between hero and villain, and we’re left to wonder what possibilities exist in the midst of chaos. Is love possible? Is family feasible? Even friendship—can it survive in the difficult world of a stubborn, driven, damaged homicide detective?

scarf

Scarfn. a long, broad strip of wool, silk, lace, or other material worn about the neck, shoulders, or head, for ornament or protection against cold, drafts, etc.

It’s funny. The ways in which we define ourselves. The list of words we generate when someone asks us who we are. Who are you? someone asks, probably in not-as-many words, and we scroll through a list of possibilities before answering. “I’m a [noun], who [verb] and [verb]. I enjoy [noun or verb]. People say I’m [adjective].” This is how it goes. It’s the elevator speech of identity. What we leave out is, maybe, as important as what we say.

A year ago, I thought I had forgotten how to be creative, so I left that adjective off of my list. I’d given up playing music, which I’d been passionate about before–hell, I pretty much stopped listening to music, too, at least in any kind of serious way; I’d discovered internet radio, and that was okay for a couple of years. It got me through a comprehensive exam and the draft of a dissertation. I wrote a lot of words. But I hadn’t written anything creative, other than a couple of meager short stories and some nonfiction for a class, in nearly six years. Seventy-two months. Two thousand, one hundred ninety days. Whatever, I’m not a mathematician; that’s not one of my nouns. But you get where I’m going.

I had, or so I thought, completely and thoroughly devoted myself to the narrow world of the academy, where I began to forge a career. And I’m still forging that career. Don’t get me wrong. I’m forging that career, and “teacher-scholar” is one of my favorite compound nouns. Add the adjective “creative” in front of it, and I think it’s a winning combination for me.

I digress.

I’m also a novelist now. I was once before, too, back all those years ago when I was fourteen and wrote, with a blue ballpoint pen in a series of college-ruled notebooks with teal covers, what I now call “the bad YA book.” I was on vacation with my parents. At fourteen, a vacation with parents is a nightmare; it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re doing; you’d rather be anywhere else and doing anything else. So I stuck my Walkman headphones on my head and wrote, wildly, in the backseat of the car, on the couch in the cottage, on the train, in bed. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. The story asserted itself in my head and demanded that I write it. I think the bad YA book is in a box in my parents’ basement.

The same sort of thing happened when I took fiction writing classes as an undergraduate, when I took the graduate-level essay-writing class. The story has a way of taking over.

Anyway. I like to think that my most recent incarnation as a mystery novelist grew out of the university asking me to teach a few creative writing classes and the fact that I finally allowed myself to (read: could) read for pleasure again at about the same time. But it didn’t; that’s not where it originated. If I’m honest about my creative process, it’s a lot like it was (ahem, cough) years ago. My protagonist had to have been brewing for a good long time, and yet she’s not me; her list of words is different from mine, when someone asks her who she is. One day, she decided that I needed to let her out, to tell her story. And she emerged in a frenzy. I wrote with fury and single-minded aggression. I forgot to do things like eat and return phone calls. Social media became a distant memory. I dreamed of my characters at night, and I grieved for them when they were gone, when the novel was drafted. So I went back and visited them–I mean revised.

I’m on book two now.

The moral of this little story, I suppose, is that I’m a writer, as well as a list of other things. I think of my many noun-identities–teacher, scholar, partner, maternal figure to dogs-and-cats, musician, foodie, critic, powerlifter, feminist, person, and, as of today, blogger (of all things, and the list could go on forever but I believe in being kind to my audience)–as a collection of scarves. I like scarves; I own a few scarves. They’re one of few items of clothing I own that aren’t black or gray or jeans (though I do own a black and gray scarf, and I often wear it with a black or a gray shirt and jeans). I have a friend whose exact words, the first time she saw me in my muted-green scarf, were “you’re wearing a color!” She’d reached out and touched the scarf. Said she liked it, and that I should consider wearing more colors.

And you know what? Now I have scarves in a few colors. One is red and has skulls on it. I like that one a lot.

Sometimes I want to wear the same scarf two days in a row. Sometimes I want to change scarves in the middle of the day, after the one I’ve been wearing gets itchy or starts to smell funky or I spill my coffee on it.

Sometimes I wear the same scarf for days on end, even if it’s itchy and stinks and is riddled with spills. Usually that’s my “writer” scarf. It’s gray, and I like to wear it with jeans. I ornamentally wrap it around my neck, shoulders, or head, and it protects me from the cold.