Sunday, June 30, 2013

I know, I know. Relax, Heather.

When I was in Palm Springs for residency, one of the evening programs I attended was called something like An Editor's Roundtable. Informally, I think they were calling it Drinks with Editors, which was nice because while we were passing a bottle of wine around in the audience (totally allowed in the evening programs, no worries), the panelists were pouring each other dark glasses of a stout brew at the head table, too.

Each talked briefly about his or her specific area of expertise, what it is like for him or her to work with authors, and what kinds of things we--as new writers--should be keeping in mind. Even though the atmosphere was relaxed, there was a lot of practical information for us to take away.

One of the last things that the editors mentioned was that a lot of new writers aren't reading enough (and that some aren't reading at all). That one of the benefits of being in an MFA program like ours is that it forces you to read an insane amount of good writing, and that has a positive effect on your own work. (Agree.)

But from there it got more specific:
Read more than you're reading now.
How much?
Read fifty books a year.
Fifty?
Yes, fifty. Read that many. Read that many or you're not being serious about your craft. If I ask you who the most important new novelists are that published last year and you can't name any, you're not reading enough.


Um.

Okay. Well, guilt time. Please also know that if someone drops a have-to around a goody-two-shoes like me, I'm going to worry about it until I just get it done. (Related: see my unresolved angst about not having read any Balzac since I went to the LA Times Festival of Books and discovered that I don't know anything about anything since I am, like the one tragically Balzac-illiterate human left on the writer planet.)

The last two years in my MFA program have been tremendous in terms of what I've been exposed to, writing-wise. And I am reading like a madwoman. I crave books. Good ones! I can't not be reading something, usually more than one something. In 2011 I read 32 books and in 2012 I read 36. I've always been a reader, but still the last two years represent a big jump in the constant stream of words for me. But--yeah. Fifty. That's a lot. To give you some perspective, I'm at 24 books so far for 2013. (Which makes me think this is not a ridiculous notion...?)

But here's the thing. Something else keeps happening to me the more I read: The more I read, the more I realize I haven't read.

And I'm sure it doesn't sound like this is true, but I'm not complaining about that. It's glorious. I feel like reading keeps taking me into rooms I didn't know about, and each room I walk into has eight more doors that lead to other rooms with more doors. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, yeah. And to continue this metaphor a bit, I keep meeting all of these great, brilliant people with wonderful rooms in their own places, and they're more than happy to show me where they live and where they grew up. (And I really like peeking into other people's houses because I'm nosy.)

Long story short(ish): I have a lot of catching up to do. I can't only read the hot new writers, because in order to read the hot new writers and understand them, I need to read the oldies and the middle-ies and the in-betweenies. Context. Also, I like being in on all the super smart Balzac jokes. Or, I imagine I would be.

Again. Not complaining. I have lists upon lists upon lists. But there are so many greats... and I'm not even talking "Classics" like, with a big C. Right now I'm really interested in the works that the people who are teaching me were inspired by and brought up on. There's a lot that happened between Jane Eyre and, like, Britney Spears. I need to reconcile that. So sometimes that means I'm down a rabbit hole of literary trends that happened in the 1990s because I feel like I need to "get" a "thing" that people "do" and so I'm not always reading things that are "of the moment" and so according to this very specific (YES, YES, OFFHAND, BEER-PROXIMATE) comment somebody* made about what means I am "serious," I am not reading enough.

*Not just a somebody. I know. A well-respected editor. With experience. Who I take seriously. Do you see why this keeps me up at night?

When pressed that night by other students to name some seminal works as examples of what they meant, not one of these editors named a new writer. So I think my takeaway from that is that good writing is good writing. Period. I'm reading a boatload. That can't ever hurt anything. It's like eating vegetables, no? And plus, I love it.

So, this post was totally going to actually be book reviews of the seven books I read in June and it is now totally (obviously) not. That will have to be tomorrow. Because this happened.

So. Resolved:

I will read 50 books this year. Not 52, because I have grapheme-color synesthesia and 50 is a nice red and clear number which feels pretty and 52 is red and yellow which is just bringing too much McDonald's drinking straw (or, for that matter, Ronald McDonald-related) color into my reading plan for the year. And also? Also? I don't need it to the same number of weeks because I feel like I should get two weeks of paid vacation from myself. The point of this whole silly post is that I'm going to do it anyway. Because I should. And I can. And it is good for me. Like spinach.

I do not have to read only new authors or new work because eff that. That part of the advice I happily let go and do not burden myself with. One. Bit.

I am still fully committed to the idea that I can stop reading anything that I start reading and then hate. So many smart people have confirmed this for me that I now feel like I should have it on a T shirt and wear it to teach the youth of America. Life is too short to finish reading things that you don't like. When you die, they do not give out awards for all of the boring books you made yourself finish. This has been one of the most freeing discoveries of my life. Read what you like, America.

*

Here is the list that I made for myself to write about (all the books I read in June) before this post turned into what it is. And now that writing will have to happen tomorrow. So get excited.

June books:

1. The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar
2. Middle Men by Jim Gavin
3. The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
4. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami
5. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
6. You Must Be This Happy To Enter by Elizabeth Crane
7. Cooked by Michael Pollan

^Just looked at that and realized I've met 5 of thosee 7 authors. (Not Kafka, obvs. And not Michael Pollan yet, sadly.) But 5 out of 7 ain't bad, and makes me pretty excited about my 2013 life.

This just got kind of weird. So, thanks for hanging in there. See you again tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Being Uncomfortable

What do potato chips, kosher dill pickles, and leftover Del Taco tacos have in common? I mean, besides their ridiculous sodium levels? Nothing, except the fact that they were all on one plate, comprising my "lunch" today. A strange moment of laziness led to me eating whatever I could grab in 30 seconds or less after I waited too long to eat, post-run, and then had an urgent need to have calories in my mouth.

PDawg: undoing the good in any exercise since 1979.

It feels like it has to count, though. This exercise thing. Perhaps today I was in it for the mental benefits. I certainly feel not crazy. This morning I dropped the kids off at school and went for a run along my favorite path. The one with bunnies and ducks and nature. The one I used to take all the time when I was training for real a few years ago. I didn't know how far I was going to go--which is a very unHeather way for me to be--but I set out anyway. When I got to a mile and a half I wanted to give up and turn around but I didn't. I ended up running four, total. Two out and back.

I'm doing this thing with Henry lately where I tell him that being hurt and being uncomfortable are not the same. As in, I'll clip his fingernails and he'll wail, OW, OW, YOU'RE HURTING ME. And I just don't think that's a way you can go through life. Because getting your fingernails clipped does not hurt, Dude. And if you think that getting your fingernails clipped actually does hurt, the world is going to knock you on your butt so hard before you're out of high school. So we talk a lot lately about how being uncomfortable is a thing, but it's not going to kill you. You can actually be uncomfortable for quite a long time without it messing you up too bad.

That's how I ran a marathon in 2011. Sometimes it's how I get through all the papers I have to grade. I tell myself all the time I only have to do this for __ more hours. Sometimes minutes.

It's what I was telling myself today. Let yourself be uncomfortable. I'm not a good, fast, or graceful runner when I am in shape, and you would not believe the extent to which I have let my cardiovascular health suffer while I have been in grad school. So today was sloppy. And labored. And honestly? Loud. I wheeze. And stomp my feet like a Clydesdale. But I knew it wasn't going to take me out, so I just let myself be uncomfortable.

Being uncomfortable is good, though, right? I think way too many people aren't very willing to go there. At the first sign of something getting rough, they bail. There's only good or bad. That's what I see in my classroom. I used to see it in my ballet students who wanted to get through a whole class without breaking a sweat. Girl, please... why are you here? So if there's something I could develop more in myself, it would be the ability to sit in that feeling. To just let the discomfort happen without trying to make it stop at all costs. (Almost like a physical form of negative capability? Peace with discomfort? Is that taking it too far?)

So yeah. Yay, running.

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It was hot, though. One thing I didn't remember from my old running days was why in the summer, I used to run right when the sun came up. DUH. This morning I was running at about 11:00 AM and it was just this side of misery. The thing is, everything is more beautiful just as the sun is rising, anyway. Morning is my favorite time. Not Sweaty 11:00 with people taking weed walks on the running path. Yes, that kind of weed. I have more than one reason to start setting my alarm.

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Cookie kept me company while I stretched and did some work on the computer after the run. And we're not really sure why, but all of the sudden she's acting like she's finally domesticated. Perhaps she has figured out that the humans are the ones with the steak (she's a total beggar for any kind of thing we're eating) but she was by my side all day. Not typical behavior for this one.

More domestic mama stuff today: I made another batch of granola because I have sorely been missing it. I always have to have granola.

And we devoured another fruit salad made of fruits that grew within a half mile of my house. I am already sad for the days that these fruit salads won't be around anymore. And I wish there was a way all this produce-eating we are doing now could somehow be stored up for the dark days of winter. Yeah, we try, then. And we probably eat more than most even in winter. But we don't like it like we do in June and July. And even Clementines get kind of old. There's just too much fresh produce that tastes amazing right now. I am so much less motivated to love fruit and buy local in, let's say, February, when all that's at the farmer's market is ROOT VEGETABLES.

UntitledUntitledCan it always be summer in California, please? Worth it for the fruit salad alone.Untitled

And... new books continue to come in the mail. I have a couple (above) on my nightstand right now and my Kindle is all loaded up. (Though I spent yesterday on a happy diversion into the works of Kafka, inspired by this piece.) I decided to try to beat last year's 36 books (I think that's the most I've ever read in a year) and read 50 this year. I'm at 22. So I have a lot to do this summer. Or, I should say: I get to do a lot this summer. Because reading is my favorite thing. I wish there was a chart like at the library when I was a kid. And then reading could be a thing that I win.

And now, because I'm experiencing a different kind of discomfort--muscle soreness--I am going to go. Night, Internet.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

Frontier Chic

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I'll admit it. I get a smug satisfaction from making my own food products. Peanut butter. Yogurt. Granola. Bread. Some things make more sense to produce at home than others, especially if you can just buy a minimally processed version that tastes good. But generally if I have time to devote to a task and I can make the thing with a small number of ingredients, I enjoy the process. There are times when homemade just tastes better.

There's always question, in late June, of what to do with about six to eight pounds of peaches that are all ripe on the same day in our backyard. AND THESE ARE THE BEST PEACHES, Y'ALL. So I am not about to waste a-one of 'em. Now I can stretch them a teeny bit, and we eat our share of fresh ones, but anybody who has a fruit tree or two knows that there's really a small window where you're looking at usable fruit. Generally this means I make a boatload of peach jam. I'm not really one for canned peaches, either -- it's a consistency thing -- but these jam up nice and make good with peanut butter and toast and such. A few years ago I also started freezing the fruit sliced up for smoothies, too. That ain't bad.

Today was jam day. Or, more importantly, it was the first jam day of the summer, since strawberry will be on the heels of peach, followed by whatever fruit gets unloaded onto me by family members with too much _____ in their yards. The first day is always the most intensive, though, because it means climbing up in the attic to drag down the canning pot (is that what it's called?) and then rummaging around in the cupboards for all the right tools, and then rounding up all the jars and lids and bands... and then the washing and the sanitizing... and peaches are the WORST because you have to peel them (ICK, ICK, extra step) and then the actually remembering how the frick to do this so I don't accidentally let any bacteria in that might screw things up.

Jam is--and I am being serious here--probably the one area of my life where I am extra super special careful about measuring and timing and being exact. Because it actually does matter to me that I don't make tainted food products and/or hurt people. And jam is a labor-intensive process. You can't leave the kitchen. Everything is boiling. It's hot. And not like hawt. I mean it's sweaty and sticky and by the time you're done you're covered in peach jam, and not in a fun way.

But. I made two batches and I put another one in the freezer to make in the dead of winter when the only produce around is some sad looking oranges. Also making me feel smug: things in my freezer that I GREW IN MY YARD.

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I also started peeling and freezing some peaches for God knows what (I still have plenty of peach halves from last year for smoothies). But my freezer will be full of delicious, delicious fruit. And I won't feel like I wasted any of it. I'm having kind of a "use the whole buffalo" day.

And because I'm nothing if not a good senior citizen, I finished that blanket this morning:

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I love summer so much.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Quiet Life

Especially from 8:00-2:15 while the monkeys are at school. No sound in the house. No due dates. No essays to read. No grades due. No bullshit. No expectations. No pretending to be interested in anyone. No trying to be interesting. Just quiet.

I can't say I've been real productive this week... moving without pause from wrapping up another (teaching) school year to a big family trip to residency for grad school all within the last month finally caught up to me and I'm a big ol' sloth. There are so many things I want to do, but I feel like I'm moving through water right now. I am emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted.

Clearly I need a strict regimen of naps to combat this fatigue, and then we can resume our regularly scheduled programming.

I keep moving my green ID bracelet from residency from room to room. But I can't seem to let it go and put it in the garbage can.

Can't let go.

I did decide it was high time to do something just for me that had nothing to do with writing. Something fun and creative... but I am not ready to jump right back in to the word pool. I haven't really let myself crochet since I started my MFA because I was worried I'd never get my reading done. 'Tis not exactly the season for yarn arts, but I knew the repetitive motion of looping yarn over a hook would do me good, and it would help me to sit and process everything that's happened in the last month.

Well my reading is done, so it's YARN TIME, BEEZIES.

I know, you're like really PDawg, this is how you go crazy? It is. Yarn over and turn up.

So anyway, I'm making a blanket. This pattern, basically, which is still my favorite. It's working up pretty quickly and the little ordered rows make me happy.

Someone else, too...

Laying down stitches today instead of words. #crochet #grannycrafts #zenProgress."Helping"Untitled

I didn't let Twinkle the Cat hang out there long, but I had to make sure I shamed her before I kicked her off. She likes to be helpful. So helpful.

Kind of fun to have the free time to crochet. I am a grandma at heart. Quiet house + granny crafts = happy me.

Tonight after dinner the monkeys and I ventured as far as the corner yogurt shop to meet some friends of ours for a little dessert. I'm just fine with my entire world being within about a half mile radius of my house for a while. Just. Fine.

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Life is small and it's great.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Cheering for the Home Team

Henry: Mom, you're coming to school to watch me play soccer in the Olympics, right?

Me: Uh, not sure I can make it back to school in time to see it this morning, Buddy. I might be late. Or I might not make it. I have some things I have to do at the house before 10:00. But if I don't make it today I'll see you run the relay on Thursday, okay?

Henry: Well, I'll be looking for you today.

Me: Yeah, but honey I might not be there. Just in case...

Henry: I'll see you at school, Mom. And if you have a shirt with England's flag on it, make sure you wear that.

*

Re-entry into real life is always difficult for me for a few days after residency because of fatigue and an overloaded brain and emotions that won't neatly shut off on the highway between Palm Springs and Sacramento. It's a slower process. I'm caught in between for a while.

This boy is good at pulling me back, though. It's always harder to get to Henry on the phone--he's prone to distractedness and won't often do more than sit in silence or offer some mm-hmms when I have him on the line from Palm Springs. But I called the house about ten minutes before I got home on Sunday night and he answered. His words tumbled out of his mouth faster than he could control them. He couldn't keep it together anymore because he just needed his mom.

He was so excited to see me when I walked in the door, I thought he was going to come out of his skin. That night he squeezed me in our front room--completely without embarrassment or awareness of feeling that accompanies that sort of thing as we get older. I feel lucky to have a kid who is still young enough to love and to miss and to hug without shame. It's lovely to feel needed. It makes the transition easier, too.

*

I didn't have the right shirt to wear, but of course I made it.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer Residency | Final Days & Thoughts on No. 4

I always front-load my residency week because I know that by the end of the thing I'll have a hard time even sitting in chairs or concentrating on long conversations. So Friday the only task I gave myself to do that was of any consequence was to make it to workshop in the afternoon. (And the sitting in chairs part--I'd say I was only about 72% successful.)

I'd already made it to enough lectures to cover my contact hours (basically like making sure we cram a quarter's worth of classes into our week of residency), so that was an okay thing to do. Although, me being me, when I ditched out on breakfast I still felt guilty about it. Because, you know, I yam what I yam.

I made everyone take a picture in our last nonfiction workshop...

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My last fiction workshop was Sunday morning. Made them take a picture too... even had to drag in a random from the parking lot to take it for me.

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And just like that, I'm done workshopping at UCR. AND I'M SAD ABOUT IT, KIDS. Next quarter (my last quarter), I'm only taking thesis units so I won't get to be a part of the workshop process, which is when we sit and discuss each other's work and offer feedback. While workshopping can be tedious or frustrating or boring or really uncomfortable when it's not good, when it's right it's SO right. And more often than not it's been right in this program. My first time it was just really empowering to hear people talk about my story as if it was a real story... I remember feeling like who was I to have anything to say about other people's work? And now I've come to feel like that conversation, my role in it, the discussion that takes place in that room (and over email, or Skype, all the other forms it has been taking lately) is so integral to my writing process. Kind of amazing to figure out that something you've been doing alone for your whole life is really about human interaction. And to learn that you have a valuable voice in that process.

So yeah, I'm going to miss that thing--or more accurately--I'm going to continue to hang on to those connections that enable me to do that thing whether I'm in a UCR workshop or not. Because I need that shit.

*

The highlight of the last evening is the graduation ceremony. Since our school is tiny (about 100 people?) it's not a cap-and-gown thing, but more of a sit at tables and listen to people give speeches thing. It's a really personal night, and then there's always a party. There are always myriad opportunities to run around with my camera and make everyone take even more pictures.

There were only about 11 graduates this time, but several of them, especially, are so dear to me. There might have been some big, drippy crying on my part. All of the speeches were just so wonderful. It was really special.

Also, I couldn't help but think about my own imminent graduation. Yeesh.

But for now: good teaching, good learning, good friends, good company. All of those things blurring together in a beautiful celebration of our attempt to make human connections with the written word.

For these people, I am thankful.

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Residency gets a big thumbs up.

If there's one picture that captures my experience this residency, it's this:

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Bless those women, and the man behind the camera. Our patient, smiling photog.

*

So, this was number four. Four times I've driven myself down the long stretch of California and then taken a turn left for the desert to hang out at Nerd Camp for ten days. As I said last time, each residency has had its own challenges and comfort level. The first time I went, I spent most of the time completely terrified of everything and everyone, and most of the time hiding in my room when I wasn't in class. It was nice to let go of that fear for the second residency and know that I knew who my people were when I came back, but also to know that I really could sit down and talk to anybody and it was going to be okay. The third time I went, I had confidence about what questions to ask the visiting guests... I knew which lectures I needed to hear and I had much more of a sense of direction. I felt as though I belonged in the literary conversation, at least as someone qualified to ask and start to seek out a particular path. By that residency I knew I'd formed writing relationships that would stick with me well beyond this program.

This time was completely different again. This time I came to realize that these relationships I have aren't just centered on our work. That these people I've been at residency with have already come to be some of the most important people in my life (and, they're already not just with me when we're at residency).

On a career level, this residency felt a little like a job interview. Parts of it, at least. Certainly the one-on-one meetings with editors and guests did, when I was pitching ideas or seeking work, but at some point this time I came to notice that my time in Palm Springs has really been a long exercise in proving myself before the watchful eyes of my peers and professors, while also (on a personal level) figuring out just exactly where I fit in the literary world. Not that this means I had to be something I'm not--in fact, I feel like this is probably the first time in my life I've been able to step away from any preconceived idea people have of what I might be (something I've always struggled with, growing up and then teaching in the same small town) and just be who I am. And it's a cool thing to go somewhere fresh and be really really yourself and then have people find you competent. I don't know. Is that a strange thing to admit?

Also this residency was also a little bit tinged with sadness because I only have the one trip left. When something's about to be over, I can't help but ruin it a little by beginning to think about how it's going to end. I wasn't able to keep myself from thinking about how all things change, how time means you can't hang on to people the way you want to even if you try. Enough things in life have already shown that to be true. But I guess if I'm grateful for anything related to that, it's the fact that it meant I tried to enjoy my time while I was there as much as possible and not blow anything off. No going to bed early (even though that was stinkin' hard). No wasted opportunities in class. Sometimes time is a good motivator, and in this case it made me bolder than I think I would be otherwise. It made me ask for what I needed, and it made me say what I felt. And, maybe I cried a little.

As with all of my previous residencies, I am so glad I found this program. I'm exhausted, I have a metric ton of laundry to do... but I know I came home a changed person.

I love my school.