23 November 2014

nostalgia and big stories

There's lots of talk about Dragon Age: Inquisition this week, and while I don't anticipate playing that particular title, it did get me thinking about video games, and every time I think about video games, I think about the Final Fantasy series. It usually happens that I want to immerse myself in an RPG when the weather gets cold, and right now, I'm thinking of Final Fantasy XII. It's not a perfect game, mostly because SquareEnix made the choice to tell the story through another whiny teenage narrator (paging Tidus from FFX) instead of one of the real hearts of the story, but the trappings of it are still so full of imaginative potential that I'll forgive it most things.

It was, too, one of the games that I think wrung every drop of the PS2's graphics ability from the system, and it had a marvelously expansive world. Many people don't want to sink a hundred hours into a video game, but I definitely do, when I play. The difference may be that I don't play often (and I don't play often because I want that expansive, all-encompassing experience, which is completely incompatible with the semester-as-usual + writing a novel). But a well-envisioned world—complete with a thousand side-quests and a well-defined map—is something I will always love. (And, Square, if you're listening, I'd still go see the movie version, from the Fall of Landis all the way through the game's end, at least a dozen times, so you know. And Chris Hemsworth will soon be the right age to play Basch. Just saying.)

Maybe that's why I finally picked up Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which I got for Christmas last year. I'm not terribly far into it, but I'm already feeling the insulating fiction of it all wrapping around me. Quite a bit of that, I'm certain, is due to the really excellent deployment of an omniscient narrator that has effectively sold me on the 1866 setting. The omniscient narrator, too, has revealed itself as a we, the full identity of such we remaining to be seen. The world of the novel is unfolding slowly and deliciously, and even where some of the character dialogue is predicated on them drawing stories out of each other, it feels appropriate.

I feel awed so few pages in, and I hope the feeling continues.

I'm not sure it was a great idea to start a book of more than eight hundred pages when I've got a Thanksgiving break coming up with a very tall stack of grading in it coming up, but I've made worse decisions.

16 November 2014

halfway to something

It's mid-November, and for all of the folks diligently plugging away with National Novel Writing Month, that means 25,000 words. Maybe it means having reached that mark and a little bit of triumph or a sense of security against less productive days or weeks. Maybe it means a renewed sense of determination to catch up to that fleet wordcount bird. Whatever it means, NaNo swabbers, sail on.

In the first sixteen days, I do have a count for what I've done so far: a little more than 18,000 words. Like I said before, I'm not really trying to hit the 50K mark in earnest, and I'm certainly not aiming for a complete draft, but simply having the everyday connection to the project has made a huge difference. I've even hit the point at which I get impatient for the next bout of writing as soon as the current day's is over.

One cost of that is feeling like I'm wishing time away, something I try very hard not to do. For one, time is already speeding along, every year seemingly faster than the last, and while in a conversation with the young woman who cuts my hair, we decided that every year feels that way. Every year is going to feel that way. There is no point at which the clock finally seems to settle. For the other, I need those daytime hours; it's mid-November, the tipping point of the semester.

(I actually counted the other day: we have only twelve more actual class days before finals week. It doesn't bear thinking about.)

Though the leaves are still stubbornly sticking here and there in thick clumps of gold and red—a stubbornness I much appreciate—there's no pretending there's much autumnal left. Some Thursday "raindrops" drifted down and spattered small crystals across the windshield, and some high enough hilltop nearby sent out cars dusted white on Friday morning.

I talk about the weather all the time. I complain about it, too, because I'm always cold, the kind of cold that doesn't warm up, no matter how many layers I add, no matter how I move. But even when the weather is hot and lovely, even when the weather is so room-temperature benign that the very air is beige, I want to speak of it. It fascinates me. Maybe, too, at this time of the year, I want to make conversation from it and find what's interesting in the alchemy of moisture and temperature and the wind's list so I won't hate it so much. If I'm busy looking at how the first wet flakes fracture, I'm not as busy feeling something shiver loose in my chest. Every year is a struggle not to lose each long night entirely. I try, again, to take Annie Dillard in her winter at Pilgrim Creek to heart:
It is winter proper; the cold weather, such as it is, has come to stay. I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting. 
There's nothing that will get me to write at night, I think, but the same happens in the chill, dark mornings, when the only sounds are sleepy cats moving to take my warm spot on the bed and the shower kicking on in the next apartment. Some days, too, what blooms in that cold morning space grows on through the day, picking its way clear in the minutes between meetings or while I drink an afternoon tea. It's important to remember: the novel is both greenhouse and plant, as am I.


09 November 2014

achieving some greater better

Earlier this week, my commute-music shuffle dropped Southeast Engine's "Try" on me, and so I'm stealing their lyrics for a title and a jumping off point here.

Because I graduated from Ohio University in 2005, it wasn't possible even for me to miss that Southeast Engine existed, and I saw them play live, I think at Casa Nueva. More importantly, I left Athens with one of their CDs, Coming to Terms with Gravity, and though I haven't really kept up with them since, I'm always glad to hear them (like on NPR's Mountain Stage). 

While I was driving, it was misty, as so many of this autumn's mornings have been, and I thought a bit on my time in Athens, where the fog rolled in off the Hocking in similar white waves. As an M.A. student, I definitely did my work and kept my head down. While there, I certainly had some great classes and professors and some marvelous colleagues, some of whom are still among my favorite people, but I stuck to my comfort zone, wrote the short stories my workshops expected. Despite having the opportunity to take workshops in creative non-fiction and poetry, I just couldn't take the chance at doing so. What if I was terrible? I'd written essays and poems as an undergraduate, had gone through rather rigorous workshops with exacting and inspiring professors, but I definitely didn't identify as an essayist or as a poet, and so I couldn't gather up the bravery to make the leap. I was only there for two years; what right did I have to encroach on another genre's territory?

When I got to my Ph.D. program in Binghamton, I did stretch myself at least so far as to take a poetry workshop, but it was largely generative, rather than with an intense critique component. So I wrote poems, and I shared them aloud, and when the semester was over, I put them away and didn't think about them again. 

Then I got a job in Wyoming, and maybe because I was teaching multiple genres of writing to my students, maybe because I didn't have to answer to a workshop anymore, maybe because no one was going to grade my attempts, maybe because of the high altitude—whatever the reason, I wrote a few poems. I wrote some essays. I found the guts to pitch a few essays, and then to simply submit, and someone even asked me to write a piece

And so I've gone along, up to my elbows in two novel manuscripts (one finished, one not), and still sometimes writing other things, while the novel percolates, while a draft rests, or when I simply can't not write the somethings else. 

In the past several days, it's been the somethings else that have brought the most exciting news. 

A poem I wrote while at the American Antiquarian Society was selected as the Writer's Block Poetry Contest winner. The judge was Rebecca Morgan Frank, founder and editor of Memorious, and I'm just so pleased about it. The poem will appear in a future issue of Memorious. In the meantime, you can read an interview about the poem at the Louisville Literary Arts/Writer's Block blog.

An essay I'd been working on for more than a year, too, was published at The Rumpus. "Leaving Early" was churned out of an experience I had while actually gathering material for my Brandon Nimmo/Sand Gnats piece. The essay is about baseball, sort of, though it's more about fear and living in the world. "Leaving Early" also makes use of something I read while I was at Ohio University in David Lazar's History of the Essay course, which seems strangely fitting, given my own cowardice when it came to actually signing up for one of David's essay workshops.

I'm still pretty peeved with myself for not taking better advantage of those other writing experiences I might have had when I was younger, simply because I didn't want to fail, didn't want to risk a B on my transcript. But I don't have to be myself at twenty-two or twenty-five anymore, and I'm glad I sent this work into the world. I'm glad it's getting easier to simply write without worrying about what it means that I have written X or Y or Z. I'm glad it's easier to simply write. I'm glad, too, that these things found homes. I'm starting to feel the same. 

02 November 2014

time warp!

This week seems like a good time to post about my own daily time warping, given the overnight clock shenanigans.

Around midday on Tuesday, I was finishing up class prep for my English Literature I class and I'd just done some reading for a conference paper I'm working on. Early that morning, I'd spent my writing time on my novel, and it was very much an ordinary type of Tuesday, a good Tuesday, one in which I'd felt I used my time wisely and well, on the whole. Still, there was something big and breathless-feeling in my brain, everything just trying to catch up—to what, I wasn't sure.

It took longer than I'd like to admit to figure it out: it was just trying to get settled in crossing eight hundred years of historical context and detail in the space of six hours. My novel is set in the early eighteenth century, and the process is immersive, drawing on the huge body of research I collected at the American Antiquarian Society this summer, and I've been mentally hanging out there for a good long while now. When I got to my office, before the building really started buzzing with activity, I settled in with a volume of conference proceedings on eleventh-century Archbishop Wulfstan. I spent about two hours switching my brain over to Old English and the niceties of transition between Æthelred and Canute, as well as the particular language of academe. (I tend to think medievalists avoid some of the worst lit-crit buzzword bingo offenses, but as I'm not a professionally trained linguist, I bring my own set of challenges to this kind of reading. Luckily, I also bring my OED.) After that, I put together class notes for our first day discussing Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, easily my favorite play, and though those came together rather quickly and happily, there was that final gasping feeling.

I wrote a quick e-mail to a friend, essentially making a joke about the temporal whiplash I was feeling. It's not new for me—my teaching responsibilities have always meant switching between time periods and subject matter, and working both as a creative writer and a literary scholar demands that, too—but I don't think I've ever been doing work so tightly pinpointed and demanding in such diverse periods before. My last novel project was contemporary; while I definitely did some research, I felt pretty well qualified in describing clothing and hair and food in twenty-first century America. When I dabbled in medieval studies, that was the only leap I was making at the time, and that certainly fed into the medieval lit course I was teaching at the time. The novel before that, my dissertation, was set in the same period as my scholarship: more Anglo-Saxon England, but that was half a decade ago, and I wasn't confronting a whole new set of texts.

Still, despite the strange flurry in my brain most of the time, the interplay of times and topics is helpful to me, particularly to my teaching, because this particular cocktail of timelines keeps me very mindful of the connections between history and literature and the evolution thereof. And, for better or worse, they're sparking other connections, especially in my creative writing. The next-novel queue is a firm four texts deep, and I'm actively adding to their Evernote catch-all files whenever I encounter something helpful.

Earlier today, I was making fun of myself and my inability to sort interesting things into just one box because I'd found a somewhat snarky response to Wulfstan from Ælfric. It might be useful for my scholarly project, but I was more interested in it as a dramatized moment, and I filed it away because it might be particularly relevant to Second-Novel-in-the-Queue. Still, it's easy for me to overwhelm myself.




Having a good system to hold onto those diverse pieces helps. I use Evernote. I also have physical notebooks for certain projects, and I make a point to transfer whatever handwritten bits and pieces end up in my daily everything journal to some electronic source because I spent way too much time during the last move dutifully typing up hundreds of scraps. (Though laborious, it was better than the prospect of hauling another box of paper up to a third floor apartment.)

What do you use to keep track of these things? Do you follow the Joan Didion admonition to keep a notebook, even if it's digital? Or do you trust that the most important things will stick in memory, that if they're really the lightning flash they feel like at first, they'll stay burned in the brain?

26 October 2014

a work in progress

By the week's end, it will be November. Writers the world around are gathering themselves for National Novel Writing Month, and I, like I've done for years, am circling it. I've already started my new novel, and it doesn't fit into the 50,000-word template. I know my own process well enough to know that trying to bash through beginning to end in thirty days isn't going to work. I write big, then pare down, and that takes time. The National Novel Writing Month frenzy isn't about writing big—it's about finishing a draft. I'm not worried anymore about not finishing. 

But, like I've said before, I'm a huge fan of getting high off everyone else's NaNoWriMo fumes, and I'm always in favor of energy turned toward writing.

The novel I'm working on now was revolutionized during my time at the American Antiquarian Society, and I've spent a good bit of the writing time since my residency re-envisioning it. Some of that is in my mind: having to think of a novel with a different opening and some different central premises than those it's had for two years is difficult, and having so much more—and better—research in the balance is having similar effects. Some of it is quite literal: I'm setting up this project in Scrivener because of the sheer amount of research I gathered and because Scrivener allows me to see all of the pieces that I need to see at once. I can also hide things when I don't need to see them, and I can do it all without the kind of window-swapping rage inducement Word causes me. (Also, my last manuscript in Word started to take nearly twenty seconds for each save, during which I couldn't continue working. Yes, it was long, but just a pile of perfectly plain text should never require so much fuss. Thus far, with more than a hundred pages of notes and so on, I've had no such issues with Scrivener.)

Apologies for the software commercial, but this project is quite different from my last. The cast of characters is still gargantuan, but the timeline is a challenge, and since the work is historical, making sure I don't get things flat-out wrong is important to me. But the real reason I'm sharing this now, on the edge of the NaNo bubble, is that the energy devoted to that novel-in-a-month project does get at something I've been thinking about a lot with this project: consistency. Presence. And I think of Annie Dillard and one of my favorite passages from The Writing Life:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. It reverts to a wild state overnight. It is barely domesticated, a mustang on which you one day fastened a halter, but which now you cannot catch. It is a lion you cage in your study. As the work grows, it gets harder to control; it is a lion growing in strength. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room. You enter its room with bravura, holding a chair at the thing and shouting, "Simba!"
A project like this really does go feral overnight. I've already found that to be true, even when the time away from the actual writing part was productive (actually giving the work time and thought to reconsider its structure) and necessary (packing, moving, starting a new job). The details drift away, and the details, for me, are everything. The every day necessity of NaNo, the staying-in-the-room, helps to keep that wildness in check.

It's also much more difficult to be scared of or intimidated by a large project if I'm seeing it every day. A week into it, the sense of even writing a novel fades away. It's simply spending time with people I like. I can see the work growing, and the work becomes its own living thing, a plant to water, rather than a finish line to reach. Yes, the NaNo push is toward a very definitive finish line of fifty thousand words and a full draft, but the writer who can hang onto the NaNo habit even after reaching that line (or despite not reaching it) will be able to keep the project in hand.

In the coming weeks, use the ambient writing push to help you. You don't have to sign up. You don't have to be a novelist. You don't have to do fifty thousand words of anything. But show up to your keyboard or notebook or recorder. The thrill's in the air. Breathe.



19 October 2014

"such is the bread of an everyday life, from morning till noon, to the shadowless night"

In having an actual commute again, I'm listening to more music than I've done in a long time. My general inability to read or write while listening to music is something I may have mentioned here before, so I tend not to listen to much of anything except while driving or working out and sometimes while cleaning or cooking. Now, I have at least an hour each day to listen, which means mostly that I put my entire collection of music (which is not very large, admittedly, only something like two thousand songs) on shuffle and let it go. Most days it means a pleasingly varied bump from Dvořák to The Dreadnoughts, Mediæval Bæbes to Melody Gardot. Sometimes, my iPod seems to want to make a point, slipping from the random algorithm to something that feels suspiciously like surreptitious DJing, playing two or three songs from a single artist in a row, settling in on a genre for most of the drive. Friday morning was one such morning, when the device settled in on Flogging Molly for a bit, and I kept coming back to this track, "Rebels of the Sacred Heart."


It's been a long time since I listened to Flogging Molly with any singular verve. I thank them for being my introduction to something kind of like Celt-punk, which I continue to love, for being the first live show I attended with a mosh pit, for being a band that traveled in my ears when I went to Edinburgh by myself more than a decade ago. I don't even have their newest album, though I might have to get it after this post, which has made me miss them. 

"Rebels" isn't even one of my favorite tracks, but on Friday morning, Dave King's blunt imprecision charmed me. Most of the words have a broad finial of -ah, perhaps best heard in the opening lines, no matter whether it seems to make sense, and there's not a clean th- to be heard, all of them rounded into d-. Even after the playlist carried on, my mind repeated, ah well—such iz da bread uff an evryday life, with the kind of obsessive return that I couldn't help but think of Anders in Tobias Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain." The sounds were wonderful and almost silly and from so far away in memory and experience, from a much younger and more naive self, albeit one who was a little more attuned to popular music, who bought albums on their release dates (not the me who missed the last two albums from this band entirely). And those sounds were from right then, that second, when I was also literally thinking of bread, thick, good, brown bread, full of a dozen kinds of seeds and grains, which I'd had for breakfast, which I would also have for lunch. And I was thinking of the expectations of whatever one's everyday life might be. 

For me, on Friday, my everyday life brought me my morning writing, some student conferences, some scholarly reading, and administering the reader review session for the student papers I'll spend this week grading. I assigned the work to my classes; my only expectation must be that I will also read and comment and return that work. I think also of expectation as it is tinged with hope: that my students will surprise me, again with their care and their insight; that my writing projects will find homes. It is, on the whole, incredibly evryday, incredibly predictable.

I was also thinking about hockey and the expectations therein because on Thursday night, when Pascal Dupuis was struck on the back of the neck by a Kris Letang shot, expectation and fear and all of that came crashing together. Mostly, I was worried. Dupuis was taken off the ice on a stretcher, and no matter his thumbs-up to the crowd on his way out, it was scary. I remember last season when he was taken off the ice with his destroyed knee, and this season how he started, somehow, with every bit of the expected hop in his skates. That made the possible outcomes sadder: how unfair to be injured again after most of a year spent rehabbing another major hurt. Early on Friday morning, though, my concern was mostly about general wellness—there'd been no update at all. Yes, Dupuis had moved his legs. Yes, he lifted his arm. Neither of those things constituted anything like real reassurance.

I don't think players and fans consider injury "expected"—not major injuries, anyway. The little ones, like bloodied mouths and missing teeth and puck bruises and soreness, fall under some other heading. They're inevitable, which is not the same as expected. In some ways, those little things are part of the "everyday bread." Soreness comes of working hard; puck bruises might mean a successfully blocked shot. And those kinds of small hurts are the ones fans celebrate. I'm as guilty of it as anyone, feeling somehow proud of the late October game last season when Dupuis popped two teeth out of his own mouth while sitting on the bench between shifts, and on Saturday night, when Evgeni Malkin laid out to get a stick on the puck carried by a breaking Travis Hamonic. 

Thankfully, by lunchtime on Friday, the news was that Dupuis was skating already, well enough to be under consideration for Saturday night's lineup. On Saturday night, he logged nearly sixteen minutes of solid play against the Islanders. It wasn't a four-point performance like his work against the Ducks in the Penguins' opener, but it was really all right for a player who'd been stretchered off the ice forty-eight hours before. What I'd expected from that image wasn't what I'd received, and I find myself incredibly grateful. More and more, each time I watch a sporting event, I am grateful when nothing catastrophic happens. I willfully forget what I know can happen, so I can celebrate the good that I am seeing: Patric Hornqvist in front of the net, Malkin finding his shot, Pascal Dupuis standing beside Dan Potash between periods on Saturday night, upright, catching his breath, awkwardly accepting well-wishes from his favorite target for jokes. 

On Friday, I put bites of cheddar on small chunks of bread, and I read the updates from practice at Consol Energy Center. I played the song again at my desk, and for a little while, I chewed, and I listened, and I was grateful.

06 October 2014

give me stitches

I have the luxury of being able to write this from the sweatpants-clad comfort of fall break. For two days, students are (theoretically) able to study and prepare for the mid-term onslaught, and professors are (theoretically) able to grade and prepare for the same. I've been doing my part, trundling pretty happily through English literature exams and Beowulf papers and composition papers predicated on students arguing for which single track to include on a Golden Record single. (The idea for that paper came after reading Elena Passarello's essay "Space Oddity," in Let Me Clear My Throat.) It's good reading, especially when I get to learn about new music, and extra-especially in these occasions:
In the in-between, I've slept more than I usually do, and I've watched as much baseball as I can, and I've knit. I'm reaching the point on a project I've been working on for more than a year where it is actually becoming itself. For all of my various organizational obsessions, I'm a poorly organized knitter. I don't plan yarn purchases for specific projects. I have a Ravelry queue of more than a hundred patterns, and I can safely say I'm not really intending to knit most of them. So when I began the Virelai Ancien wrap, it was mostly an experiment in ridiculousness, and I more or less accepted that it was going to pattern on in shifting shades of blue and green forever. But I've finally reached the end of the colors I had put aside for it, and I'm very nearly ready to begin the border. I'm still trying to decide on what I'll do around the edge—surely black—but it's reaching that point where the edging is becoming a reality. It's something I'll need to do soon. And like the process of finishing a novel draft, once the end came into sight, I felt this barreling feeling. I couldn't stop.

an entrelac blanket in various shades of blue and green
Entrelac. All of the entrelac.
Which meant that I've probably spent something close to thirty hours knitting since I came home on Friday, which is roughly 1000% more knitting than I usually do in a given three-day span. Which has precipitated me needing to dig out the wrist braces I bought back in the dissertation days.

hand in a wrist brace atop a book
Andrea Barrett's story collection, Archangel, is pretty great, though.
I'm wearing them now, and I wore them as I graded this morning, fully anticipating that I will spend all of the night's MLB playoff action knitting. I will do that even though I know it's going to hurt—
(Read this by Kyle Beachy wherein he talks about pain and acknowledgement far more gracefully and pointedly than I do here.)
—and tomorrow, when I have another morning of typing and grading ahead of me. At night, I will put my hand under my pillow because the weight of my head holds my wrist flat, and the eventual warmth will feel good. And I will probably knit more tomorrow because I'm close to the end and I'm excited, and the project isn't of such a complex nature that I'd screw it up by continuing to work on it.

The barreling feeling gets me in trouble at the end of writing projects. I finished a draft of a short story today, and I wasn't even out of the shower before I figured out that I'd rushed the ending. I made myself spend longer on breakfast, making a Fancy Coffee in my own kitchen (because leftover salted caramel and some frothed milk never hurt anyone) and eating my toast before I went back to the computer. I fixed it then, and there was still that heady little buzz of finished finished! when I closed the file and got on with today's grading.

The story is short by my usual standards, just over 3,000 words, and I'm doing my best to wait at least a day before looking at it again. Wisdom says I should wait longer. If a story is a small wound—and for me, they usually are, painful in so many ways—I should let the whole thing heal, wait for the work's edges to become whole before I look again. Then I'll see what's gone right and what might need to be opened again, where the stitches went awry.


26 September 2014

in good company


For a good part of the time I was in Casper, I was lucky to have knitting friends, and friends who didn't knit but who liked to get together with good food and conversation who weren't bothered by the constant twitch of yarn and needles. Still, I did—and do—most of my yarn-based pursuits in private, usually in my living room, while watching baseball and hockey. It's something to do with my hands that simultaneously justifies the act of watching and is a pleasure in and of itself. I don't knit a whole lot in public, though, and while I love to talk about it, I don't tend to do so unless I know I have a like-minded conversation partner.

On Saturday, I attended a meeting of the Cocoa Area Fiber Enthusiasts at the Hershey Public Library, where I had the distinct pleasure to spend nearly three hours in the company of people who are not only knitters but also spinners, dyers, felters, weavers, crocheters, and so on. Many of the participants also expressed interest in other creative pursuits: paper-making, historical crafting practices, dichroic glass-making, quilting, and on and on. Through the midday, we worked on our projects and talked pretty exclusively about similar creative pursuits, showing off current projects and older ones.

14 September 2014

variations on a leaf

I turned on the heat in my car the other morning as I drove to campus, and I have worn jackets. But this leaf was on the apartment complex sidewalk while neighbors still sweltered poolside, I took the photo because the leaf is lovely, peach-tinted instead of aflame. But I didn't notice the piece of dead grass lying atop it, and I didn't want to pick it up and press it flat between book-pages because I didn't want its loveliness. I never want fall. It comes anyway.



My days are bookended by thirty minutes in the car, which is new. I listen to music, setting my digitized music collection to shuffle, and while I drive, every musical whim I've had confronts me. Sometimes the randomization creates patterns—three and four songs by the same artist in a single drive, out of hundreds of artists and two thousand single tracks—and I sink into when and where and everything is fleeting. The player is set to fade tracks in and out, so the beginning of one song overlaps with the end of the previous, partly for the unexpected juxtapositions, but mostly to avoid flat air.

There isn't much music I've ever grown out of. Some things fade out of intentional listening patterns, but when the music I loved best at ten and fourteen and twenty-four cues up, I usually let it play. When there are too many things to think, often on Monday mornings and Wednesday evenings, I turn the music louder and louder and it isn't until I park that it seems far too loud.



I drive with the windows open. I remember that I actually like the smell of skunk, and I remember how close the scents of manure and earth and drying cornstalks. With the windows open, sometimes bits of leaf and chaff blow in, sometimes rain.


Sometimes the air here smells like melting chocolate and roasted almonds, but I still only want to eat peaches, all summer-tasting and sunrise-hued, the colors of this heatmapped leaf. 



There's no sense in me saying not yet. Waiting until I'm ready only means dead time between tracks.


10 August 2014

stymied

On Friday, July 11, Stymie Magazine founding editor Erik Smetana announced that Stymie will be closing its doors after rolling out a few last accepted pieces. This makes me sad, not only because a great journal that published a lot of things I enjoyed reading, but also because Stymie Magazine helped me as a writer in ways I am still figuring out.

In 2012, Stymie published a story I wrote during my MA program, a story called "Middle Infield." It's a story I loved writing, one of the first (and still few) short stories that came off the keyboard in any way that felt easy, natural, purposeful. [For me, a good short story is the hardest thing in the world to write.] And it was a story that came from bits and pieces of life, and it was a story that I also wrote about. I was so incredibly happy when "Middle Infield" found a home; for whatever reason, it was the publication that made me feel most like a writer up to that point. More likely, it was a publication that came when I really needed to feel that way—three years into a demanding new job, a job I loved but also a job that could have easily swallowed my writing whole. I was in the middle of a novel draft then, too, trying to finish while also trying to teach five classes and run a literary festival, and that acceptance came at one of the times where it was hard to see the end of the draft, hard to see how any of it would work.

In the end, it did work. I finished the draft before Christmas of that year. I submitted all of the literary festival grant evaluations on time. I did my best work for my students. I had reasons not to write, but I wrote anyway, and I know that story helped that happen.

There are weeks like this one—these past ones—where life, generally, threatens to consume all of that, anyway. All writers go through periods where the world is full of completely sane, reasonable reasons not to write. In the current month, I have a 2000-mile move, a house to sell, an apartment to settle into, a new office to unpack, new classes to plan, family I've been away from for half a decade to see—all things I can point to as functional reasons that the carefully cultivated habit is off the rails. Most mornings, I still put myself in my desk chair. I'm two hours later than I should be; I'm easily distracted by the internet, my phone, the oddments that are never going to have a proper place in this apartment; my cupboards are in the wrong places; my tea takes longer to make; the cats are not in the places I'm used to looking for them. Who hasn't sung this song before?

I'm trying to be gentler with myself (in this hour, at least—this morning was a different story); there can be quieter writing times, smaller progresses. Invisible progresses. Internal percolation. Something.

Yesterday, we drove the hour and change home—
(a place I still clearly don't know how to name because home is this apartment in Hershey, so close to the park that I can see the Kissing Tower from the living room and all of these summer days are written over with rollercoaster screams and the soft whistle of the park train, home is where that desk chair is where I sit and don't write but want to, but home is also where we did our growing up, the same school district, where family is, but there is the house in Wyoming, now empty and waiting but for five years, it wasn't, was home and where we had our other family, the family we choose, and how many homes can one person hold in one heart?)
—and we spent a few hours with my husband's family, and then a few hours with mine, and then we came back to Hershey in time to watch the last outs of the Phillies' game. The drive takes just over an hour by one possible route or nearly ninety minutes by another. We drove through old coal country; we took a road called Gold Mine that turned hairpins here and there and crossed the Appalachian Trail twice. It was green and steep and quiet. We passed a man on a tractor, and we waved, but we forgot about our Wyoming license plates and he looked at us strangely.

When Stymie accepted my story, it felt like someone waving back. It was that acceptance in Stymie, a literary journal that took sports and sport-related content seriously, that gave me the confidence to make my first pitch to The Classical. It was almost six months later, but there was something residual there, something that helped to give me a little more permission to take myself seriously. That's another lifelong struggle, artistically, that's neither here nor there at the moment, but sometimes the feeling crystallizes enough to break off a piece, hold it in my hand, and feel yes, this. Sometimes the feeling has enough weight to throw.

So thank you, Stymie, and Kari, Matt, Julie, Erik, and the other many people who've had a hand in making Stymie Magazine everything it was for readers and for writers. Thank you for asking me to write for your Why I Write feature, too, because now is one of those times when I really need to remember.