Sunday, December 14, 2014

The End


I just woke up from a pillow-mark-on-my-face, sweaty-hair, drool-on-the-pillow nap. Work hard, nap hard, I guess. The sun is setting and the resort is quiet. Almost all the writers are gone.

I came back this residency to TA--to work for the school keeping the schedule of editor and author appointments and to do anything I could to help out. In exchange, I got to be here to see my mentee graduate and catch up with my friends. I'm dog tired, and not in the way that I usually am. Ordinarly my brain is fried by the end of the week. This week it's my cankles. Assisting is not a huge mental challenge, but I was always moving.

Last night was the end of something. The end of my time here? Maybe. At least the end of my time here as it has been. Being here two residencies after my own graduation has shown me, as my friend Maggie puts it, that we're all completely replaceable. There are new people at the fire pits now, new people who have their usual spots in the R Bar and their own jokes and their own memories of drinking cheap wine while they laugh and cry about awkward moments in workshop. New people eager to hear advice about publishing and discover more about this world. I'm excited for them and what they're discovering. But it's been good to discover that the thing I think I miss has very little to do with convening in the desert. The thing is the people I took with me, and they're with me just as much at home.

The people--my people--are so much a part of my daily and weekly life now that I don't need the excuse to meet up. Being here I just feel the absence of the other friends who are not. But in real life, they're all there. Several times a year we're together in person, and in-between, it's our texts, chats, Google Hangouts and phone calls that keep us close. One of the best things about a low-res program in 2014 is that all these people live in my phone where I can reach them instantly, regardless of where they live.

I want to say that being here showed me that I don't need this place anymore. That sounds kind of sad, or maybe a little rough. But I think it was the lesson of this, my 6th residency. I guess it's shown me that the thing I was so dizzy about finding over the course of the first few--the community, the feeling that there are people out there who understand me and what it is I want for myself--isn't only something that exists here.

I didn't take that many pictures this time. We're all too comfortable with each other. Just family. Plus it just feels like I'll see them again. I feel less frantic clinging, because I know who has proven they'll be there next week, too.

If anything, being here reminds me that I am responsible for keeping the ties I have to this network of people. If I want to workshop, I owe pages to the two friends that read my work every few weeks. If I want to get together and laugh, I need to keep making time for it. If I miss people, I need to call them.

This school helped me find myself as much as anything. To figure out that I can call myself a writer and that having a group of like-minded nerds might enrich my life. I have that part down. I'm good. I just need to go forward and work hard. I need to keep the people close to me who I want close, even if this phase is over.


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

My Year in Reading

One of my favorite things to do is to ask people about the books they've read. Naturally, I love The Millions' A Year in Reading series. Each day they post a few more authors' musings on a year of books. They range from the new to the classic. I can't get enough. They feed my desire to be both nosy and well-read. I thought I'd write about my own Year in Reading. I'm up to 60 books so far this year--more than ever before. It's been a year of great reads. I am rich in the written word.

The first book that I got lost in this year was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Like practically every other human in America, I couldn't read enough about Boris or antique furniture restoration. But I loved quite a few smaller, quirky novels this year too: Shane Jones' bizarre and transfixing Crystal Eaters. Daniel Seery's oddball novel A Model Partner. The raw and beautiful Green Girl by Kate Zambreno. Sarah Gerard's haunting, scientific Binary StarI also spent some time in the dark world of The Beat Generation in the late Don Carpenter's Fridays at Enrico'sTod Goldberg's Gangsterland made me both laugh and contemplate my mortality. And Gina Frangello's gritty, sweeping, sexy tale, A Life in MenI finished in one big gulp.

I raced through Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation and Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being after seeing both authors at the LA Times Festival of Books. Both works ask questions about what we expect from a story: Offill makes a collage out of disparate parts, while Ozeki changes the game midway through. I listened to Time Being on the train from London to Paris and back. I heard Ozeki read the final lines as I pulled into the tube stop for Heathrow. It was a joy to read something that took me out of myself while I was also displaced from home.

I read more short story collections than ever, and many of them--Beside Myself by Ashley Farmer, How to Catch a Coyote by Christy Crutchfield, Does Not Love by James Tadd Adcox and See You in Paradise by J. Robert Lennon, to name a few--were wonderful books that challenged me to read in new and different ways. My eyes really opened this year to how much freedom there is in short fiction. I read some weird stuff this year, man. But so much of it was great, weird stuff.

I reread books for teaching: The Great Gatsby, Anthem, and for my appearance on Literary Disco, Albert Camus' The Stranger.

In an attempt to make myself a better person/artist, I read books like Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit and 10% Happier by Dan Harris. In an attempt at escapism, I read Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, which was decent, and Amy Poehler's Yes, Please, which was a delight. I also read Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl, but this became a vehement hate-read after only a few pages. (Seriously, don't bother.) I'm ending the year as I began it, walking on the treadmill to a mystery book. (First was Ben H. Williams' Countdown City, then Marisha Pessl's Night Film, and finally the Robert Galbraith--née Rowling--mystery The Cuckoo's Calling.) I like a little crime in the morning.

Two essay collections I loved this year were Megan Daum's The Unspeakable (especially for the opening essay), and Dinah Lenney's fabulous The Object Parade. Leslie Jamison's The Empathy Exams rocked my world. Somehow, the memoirs I read this year began to coalesce around the idea of faith. I read Sara Miles' City of God, Megan Hustad's More than Conquerors, Diogo Mainardi's The Fall, and Krista Bremer's My Accidental Jihad.

But the best read this year wasn't the best book. I read Sharon Creech's middle grade novel, Walk Two Moons. My daughter read it for seventh grade English class, and she loved it so much that she asked me to read it. She wanted to talk about it. There's no better read for me than a shared one.

What did you read? Let's talk about it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


Last night I showed Addie a picture of her that I'd posted on my Facebook page. In the picture she is a spiky-haired one year old with green frosting covering her nose. It's the requisite "we let our kid smash up her own cake" first birthday photo. This was before people started making applesauce lentil cakes topped with blended kale, or whatever they're doing now. Maybe it was already a thing not to let your kid have sugar. In our family, you grow up knowing frosting.

"Do you remember that?" I teased her.

"No! It was so many years ago. How can you even remember that, Mom?"

I assured her it was not that many years ago, it was a blink.

"For me that was a whole lifetime ago," she said. And then she looked at me like I was ridiculous.

She's twelve today, and if I think about it too hard I get a big lump in my throat.

She is wonderful and sensitive, in so many ways the person I wish I could have been when I was twelve. Yet she is distinctly of both me and Eric. I find her existence to be just as overwhelming a miracle as I did the first time I heard her cry on the morning of November 16, 2002.

I didn't sleep the night before she turned one. I was up all night making a scrapbook for her, dripping tears on the photos and pretty paper. I cried some more on the keyboard, trying to get out my big, sloppy feelings. I wanted to let her know how much she changed me, our family, the whole world. I was afraid that night. Those tears were panicky. Her first year had been so good and special that I was worried it would change at one. I was worried she'd be big and wouldn't need me.

But she doesn't remember that night. And she doesn't remember the day before she was born, the twenty six hours of labor and the dropping heart rate and the machines and the exhausted, fearful decision to do surgery. She doesn't remember her orange fleece outfit or the knit beanie she wore home from the hospital that made her look like a pumpkin. She doesn't remember bottles in bed and sleeping in with Dad or the way she would grip my thumb as I would guide her chubby arms into the holes of a onesie. There's so much she doesn't know.

Her birthday is a reminder of how lucky we are to share her, how much her humor and wit and creativity make all of us better. How great each stage is. How much she's grown into this human who does things and knows her own beautiful world. But it's also, weirdly, a reminder of so many memories she doesn't have. The way we waited for her. The way we wanted her. The way we rolled out of bed a million times to answer her cries. The way we'd let her tiny body curl into sleep on us, and the way we'd give anything for it now.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Currently: Hamlet Time

Well. This morning from 4:30-6:00 AM, everything was Hamlet, anyway.


I was up working on my Ploughshares blog series that will start in November. I am equal parts terrified and excited that I get to write about something that I love so much for a publication that is so... I can't even describe it. My nerd heart is about to burst: I get to write about old stories told in new ways, hence the above reference to everyone's favorite emo-king. But excitement needs backing up with some hours of hard work, which is why I've been up at ungoldly hours making lists and falling down internet research rabbit holes. As ever, I am so nervous/anxious/excited to try to do my best with it.

Lately I haven't wanted to write here much--even when I've had time, which isn't often--because I worry about waxing too poetic about my newfound pre-dawn routine. But suffice it to say that it's still working for me. And I am a firm believer in the idea that anything can happen if you schedule it on your calendar and set ten reminders. So, that.

Life is good right now. Life is busy as hell, but one year out from the MFA I am just in a place of acceptance about it. Busy means people are asking me to do things and sending me books, and not falling apart means this book critic gig is something I can do. Am doing. The fact that I am just as excited about reviewing books (maybe more?) a year and 30-some-odd reviews later is craze amaze.

I dig this quote in Our Secret Life in the Movies, out soon from A Strange Object.

It is so painfully apparent to me that when work (either one) gets busy, I pacify myself with mundane, familiar, and predictable TV. This explains why last year as I finished my thesis, I swathed myself in the soothing, vanilla-bland voice of Rick Steves.  It is why this fall I've taken up LOST again like it's my job.

I know. There's no helping me.

I am such a wimp. Exhibit A: the above picture I took just after freaking myself out with the stupid episode where the freighter blows up and ye olde Losties start skipping through time. Only I already knew what was going to happen, so...?

It feels like fall. Lots of LOST and lots of coffee (I eased myself off into decaf for a whole month and then gave it up in one day--all for no good reason) and lots of movie scores on Pandora. Tights and boots. Extra quilts. Teaching continues to be much more manageable since I am not sacrificing myself weekly on an altar of 100ish AP English 12 essays. What I have now is a much more even arrangement of time/bang for buck. My job is crazy hard, but it's not crazy impossibly hard in a time-management way anymore.


Untitled Untitled

In Literary Things With Other People News, a few weeks ago I attended the 3rd anniversary reading for Under The Gum Tree in Sacramento. After that I was in Oakland to see Tod Goldberg in conversation with Josh Mohr, and then the following weekend I stayed in San Francisco with friends so I could attend LitCrawl, and so I could attend breakfast at the Ferry Building and eat my weight in bread. God, San Francisco. I'm so glad that to you, twee toast is a thing. You get me.

Anyway, America. You should buy Tod's book.

After that, you should read this piece, SUBMITATHON! by Jill McDonough, a poet I discovered at the Threepenny Review reading in SF, thanks to my friend Lizi. Oh, and this poem that McDonough read, too.

In a little over a month I'm going back to Palm Springs to MFA residency--this time to TA and to see my mentee, Eileen, graduate. And to try as hard as I can not to feel weird about hanging around like some weirdo who used to go there. But at the moment, my excitement about being in a) a hotbed of literary geekdom and b) Palm Springs outweigh whatever awkward feelings I'm having about it. Also, this is me we're talking about. Awkward is my mileu. Anyway, that's in December and I can't wait.

For now I'm just biding my time, trying to type with one hand so the other hand can cat.


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Morning Light

Morning light is the best light. It's the time of day I'm most productive, hands down.


This means some prioritizing. I write the best in the early morning, but it's also when I find it easiest to run. If I run, I mean. (Which I've been doing again successfully for a grand total of two weeks. Holler.) This morning, writing won though. All week I've been setting my alarm for 4:00 (Yes, 4:00) just so I knew I'd do the work first. (I'll run later, BTW. I made myself a promise.) (Parentheses!)

I realized as I carried my coffee over to the couch to open the window and start working: even the smell of morning air makes me think of that kind of productivity. I wish I was able to focus on things for the rest of the day the way I can focus on them in the hours before 7:00. Even reading has become a morning activity. I've been having trouble finding time to finish a book for a review, so I made that my morning task for a while, and it worked. Focus times ten.

Yes, this means I need to get to bed before most people are sitting down to Must See TV. But (thank you, Benadryl) I'm not having too much trouble with that. Usually after teaching all day, I'm just counting down the hours until I get to return to my nest of blankets and memory foam.

I spent some time this week talking to a bright high school senior who wants to be a writer (the rare unicorn of my high school English world) and we talked about how unique each person's process and habits can be. When I hear myself talk out loud about having two kids (one, ultra tweeny lately), a full-time job, a household to run, etc, I feel like it doesn't make any kind of sense that I'd be able to get any of it done. Somehow, it's all working. For now. Talking to the student made me think about how flexible it all is, though. How much it changes.

I wrote a review this morning on the couch by the open window, and Henry snuggled up next to me with his 3DS. I've been reading in my car as I wait for Addie to get out of school in the afternoons. But the working-next-to is lessening. When I do get to spend quality time with them--watching them swim at night or when we sit together as a family for dinner, or when we chat on the way to and from the myriad schools and activities, it's good. Easy. And I'm happy in those undistracted moments that I'm not trying to scramble to finish some kind of writing task like I was when I was in school. This year post-MFA has mostly been about how to work the same amount but to calm the freak down about it.

I have to say, it sure helps that the kids are not tiny anymore. One of my friends with a small baby is struggling to find work-life balance. I remember how it made me feel broken all the time. When mine were babies, infants, toddlers, I split in two. And not for anything good like writing that would have filled my soul. At the time, anything other than work-work (read: anything that did not fill the bank account) came with guilt. Just the daily demands of work cut at me--that unforgiving obligation of a job that brings a necessary paycheck--which made me feel constantly at war with my biology and hormones.

One of the things I see my daughter struggle with now is the idea that if something hurts now--or is difficult--now, she thinks it will always be this way. And that's not specific to teenagers. I fall prey to it, too. When things are hard or are not happening successfully it's easy to feel like I'm never going to figure it out or get it together. This week, it worked. Next week one of the monkeys will probably forget they have had a project to work on for four weeks, and the whole thing will crumble. For this week I'm happy I was able to drag myself out of bed to get things done. For today, it's enough.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour 2014

My friend Maggie Downs was kind enough to tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. You can check out her answers to the same questions here, and you can read our other friend, Maggie Thach's, responses here.

Here's a little about my process:


What are you working on?

I am usually working on several things at once. I shoot for a balance between reading for book reviews (which isn't writing, but still feels like my writing life), writing book reviews, and writing short stories or essays. Probably an even third each.

Currently in the reading for reviews category, I'm about to start reading The Hollywood Trilogy by Don Carpenter for a review. I reviewed Fridays at Enrico's for The Rumpus a few months ago, and I enjoyed that. I'm hoping I feel the same way about THT.

As far as review writing: Tuesday night I started collecting quotes from Justin Taylor's Flings  and organizing my notes so I can write a review. I'm sort of midway through the process, which is to say I've been doing all the grunt work before I sit down to actually write anything. But assuming I've done all my work in the reading and note-taking and organizing, the act of writing reviews is usually very enjoyable. I'm hoping I can carve out a few hours after work and before I pick up my kids today so I can get a draft done.

I'm busy, so my creative work is suffering a little bit. It's always the thing that I put off when I have a deadline for a review or a lot of grading at school, but I make an effort to work on something each week. Lately I've been alternating between nonfiction essays and short stories, but I don't feel like I've had enough time (or attention, maybe?) to do a good job of starting anything new. I've mostly been revising old things for submission and keeping notes in my phone for new stuff.

Why do you write what you do?

I like what Joan Didion says:
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
I think I write narrative for the same reasons everyone writes narrative. To figure out what I think about what's happened to me, and to imagine myself into other people's lives, which is both fun and a challenge. And because I can't help myself.

But in the last few years I discovered my niche of the literary world. Or, at least what I want my niche to be. I love writing critical work. Book reviews. My background in teaching English and my love of reading and my desire to be creative somehow combine to make this something I am suited to do. I heard David Ulin speak at my first residency about how critical writing is creative writing, and something just clicked. As I worked my way through my two and a half year MFA program, I began to notice I was one of the only students who didn't hate writing critical papers. I found that I even enjoyed writing about books I didn't like. I loved the act of writing in order to figure them out. It was a lot like teaching, which I love. My thesis advisor, Tod Goldberg, suggested I should start writing book reviews. At that point I didn't even know being a literary critic was a thing. But once I figured that out, I felt very strongly that critical writing was a thing I should be doing. I spent all the time I had left in the program trying to learn as much as I could about critical work.

Now I write critical work because I love it. I want to be a part of the literary conversation with so many writers I admire. I want to push myself as a reader and as someone who can organize her thoughts into something worth reading.

How does your work differ from the other works in the some area/genre?

One thing I learned from reading John Leonard's Reading for My Life is that a critic's work is only effective if it's filtered through the writer's individual voice and experiences. I was really moved by how unique his reviews were, and how together they became a kind of autobiography in books. I like to think about my own work like this. It's really only about my own experience with a book, and nobody else's. In the very beginning I struggled more with why anyone might want to read what I think about a book. I worried too much about getting it "right"-- What if I misunderstood a book and identified something about it that was different than what other people thought? Reviewing is an exercise in standing up for your own opinions. It's a struggle still, sometimes, but I really try to let that go. And I try to just write from my own little corner of the world.

I suppose my work is different because I try to specifically speak to my own experience and perspective. That's all I can do, anyway. It reminds me of when I was dancing. You can only work effectively if you embrace your own movement style. Worrying about how you're different from others doesn't accomplish anything. You just have to do good work and hope you keep improving. Eventually you figure out how your body moves and it works better. It's being different that makes you interesting, anyway.

How does your writing process work?

I have such a routine, because my life is so busy that if I don't I won't get anything done. And oddly enough, the thing that helped me the most for creating a writing routine was training for my first marathon. I learned a lot about how I need to know what to expect, and how I need small, manageable deadlines to get anything accomplished. I also learned that if I try to force myself to do something and it goes against my natural rhythms, I will fail. Miserably.

And writing is supposed to be enjoyable, right? I wanted to make it possible for myself to enjoy it.

No idea where he gets this behavior.
Beautiful distractions.

Anyway, I'm so driven by routine. This is good, because book reviewing is a complicated dance of pitching to editors, requesting advance review copies from publishers, reading, and meeting self-imposed deadlines. I map out reviews and pitches months in advance. I sit down every Sunday and look at what I have "due" in the week ahead, and then I break the work down into hourly increments. I probably work somewhere between 10-20 hours a week on writing and writing-related tasks, depending on how much work I have.

I know it will take me about an hour to read 50 pages, and I know about how long it will take me to write and edit a review, based on length. I schedule everything on my calendar. Things like read 50pp Taylor or write review Carpenter. Or sleep. The benefit of this is I never wonder what I should be doing to get everything done by Saturday. I don't have to look too far ahead and get worried. And this way I never feel overwhelmed by a whole task. If I just wrote TO DO: read and review The Hollywood Trilogy, that would make me want to die (respect to the author, it's not about him, it's about the 450 pages he wrote), which would make me want to read and write nothing.

Once I've carved out the time, it's not so hard. It is something I enjoy, after all. And if I tell myself I only need to read 50 pages or write half of a review, it's not overwhelming. I can relax and enjoy the book or relax and let myself be creative. Often I find myself doing more work than I need to accomplish, because I'm so into it. This is dorky, yes? But it works for me. I think once I realized how I work I have been a much happier writer. No more trying to finish something at midnight, because midnight is my sleep time. If I'm awake and trying to write, I'm probably going to be crying, and whatever I'm writing won't be any good.

I've also learned lately that it's important to take days off. If I plan to work 365 days a year, I'm going to fail. This is also like running... I think you get stronger when you take a rest day, sometimes.

Continuing the blog tour: I tag Jenn-Anne Gledhill and Emile Barrios.

About JA: JA has called Chicago "home" since June 1, 1995. She relocated from Orlando after receiving a "message" to do so during the Winona Ryder/Susan Sarandon version of the film "Little Women." (She is fully aware it could have been the booze fumes talking, but those fumes were on to something if that's the case...) She sometimes works on her novel tentatively titled "The Branson Novel," but so what, right? Everyone is working on something. She wants you to know that she digs you. Like, kinda hard.

About Emile: Emile Barrios is a graduate of UC Riverside Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program. He the author of the memoir Nub: Story of an Ex-Cripple, and is currently at work on a novel about his native South Louisiana. Emile’s writing career began after thirty years as a TV news producer, industrial filmmaker, corporate executive, and PR consultant. He lives and works in San Diego.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Avoidance and Other Behaviors

My brain is a lazy jerk. You might look at me and go oh, Heather is getting shit done, she seems like she is making it happen. She gets up every day. But really I am playing mind games with myself just to do the things I'm required to do. All my brain wants to do is go to sleep and maybe wake up to eat some gummy bears and then go back to sleep again. My brain hasn't changed in the last few years; I've just gotten better at tricking me. It's all a game. This all has to happen if I want to -- I don't know -- keep moving and have some kind of career as a book critic and/or writer. Remain employed. Earn a paycheck.

You know what I learned in grad school? How to work ALL. THE. TIME.

So it's all a big sham, I'm saying. This "motivation." Ninety nine percent of the time if I'm getting anything done, it's because I am avoiding something else. I can generally make this work for me.

Day-long, boring teacher inservice?
Write three months of daily lesson plans. 
Stuck in the car waiting for kid to get out of school?
Read 25 pages of book for review.
Don't want to grade papers?
Write essay.
Don't want to do submissions?
Grade papers.

I survive by making my avoidance behaviors just other things that need to be done. How dorky. I know. I have to have a to-do list, and sometimes doing something else on the list feels like more fun than whatever I'm supposed to be doing. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Yes, this makes me the same as the kid in my class who is trying to do her math homework when I'm not looking. I was that kid, anyway. The irony is not lost on me.

I bring this up because on Sunday I went off the rails. Avoidance reached critical mass. Well. Backing up. I think I lost the first wheel on Wednesday night when E was out late after his softball game, having a beer with the guys. I couldn't sleep and I needed something to do, so I organized my closet. As one does. And in the middle of organizing my closet I had this idea that maybe I should have a list of, like, just exactly how many cardigans I own and what colors they are. For science. And then maybe blouses and tanks and pull-over sweaters. This is a thing I needed to know, you guys. So I start writing it down on some binder paper (no joke!) and I think to myself that damn it, this is 2014 and if Clueless taught me nothing, it is the fact that we should all have digital closets by now. So a little searching proved that there's an app for that. Of course. There are actually a bunch.

Cut to me spending all day Sunday taking iPhone pics of each shoe, accessory and clothing item in my possession. Why? Because I needed to be able to create digital outfits and catalog my stuff. Because cataloging my clothing in photos was the biggest emergency, ever.

Or maybe I was avoiding reading for a book review. And writing said book review. And talking to humans. And doing anything other than sitting in the middle of my bedroom in Soffe shorts and an overstretched tank top, watching reruns of LOST for the umpteenth time just so I didn't have to think about real life. Sometimes a project feels like an emergency feels like it's easier to think of than your actual list of responsibilities and/or feelings.


This all comes up now for two reasons.

1) My work schedule changed. I was only part time for five days. I picked up another class. I'm back to full time teaching, which means I'm back to no time for writing, thinking, and doing all the little organizy shit that constitutes the rest of being a writer. My strategy of avoidance won't let me get it all done. There's too much.

I'm having to find time to do work when I can't just pretend I'm avoiding other things. The only free hours in my day are morning hours, so I'm getting to work at about 6:30 AM. The only thing I am avoiding is sleep. It's okay, but it's not my normal deal. Pros: nobody else is at school at 6:30 in the morning, so it's real quiet. Cons: 6:30 in the morning, dude.

2) This post is avoidance of actual work that I should be doing. As always, there's a ton.

I better go.