23 August 2012


Tara Mae Mulroy, a former editor for The Pinchblogged the creation of a poem one recent morning, and also invoked the issue of scheduling writing, the problem of finding a suitable block of enough quiet to compose. There's little I love more than the process conversation, and the idea of process, specifically the cultivation of writing habits (and others), has been at the forefront of my mind all summer.

For the first time, I feel like I actually got there, wherein "there" is some basic state of satisfaction with what I'm doing with my brain and my body. I've written about my writing process before, at least in part, and that isn't really the heart of this entry. This is mostly about un-fargling my fargle-bargling tendency to do things that I know don't work for me and that result in deep wells of startlingly boring malaise [1].

This past winter was all about becoming really, really attuned to what doesn't work, moreso than usual. At the end of last summer, I burned out on yet another novel, one I'd been working on (ish) for three years. That brings the count to two 300-page unfinished manuscripts and a completed novel draft that could use a good beating revision that are in a drawer and are staying there for the foreseeable future. (I hope these all count toward the requisite failed novel count that every novelist I know racked up before The One That Worked.) There was the semester, too, and grading and the same sad violin I keep playing for myself. That song remains the same.

One thing from autumn that did work pretty well, though, and that was that I joined a CrossFit gym. Yeah, I know. I barely believe it, either. It was actually a lot of fun, in that way that it was fun to go to practice for high school sports: friendly competition and shared misery. Apparently, I sincerely enjoy those things. The bigger deal is that, for about five months, I was in the best shape I've been in since high school. And despite experiencing Jell-O leg syndrome every other day and learning a vicious hatred of overhead squats that I am still not over, I felt completely jazzed. It was also one thing, at the end of three days a week, I could say I had done. For once, I paid attention to that feeling: that was a good thing.

Then the gym moved and things got wonky and that was that. Cue February and March: Nemeses. There's nothing dramatic to relay, just high-functioning flatlining. The work associated with my job got done, I didn't hoard cats or half-empty pizza boxes, I only resorted to wearing sports jerseys instead of "teaching clothes" once a week or so. Still no writing, and I started sleeping up until the point that I had to leave for work, and there was nothing after that. I taught at eight a.m., but sleeping until almost seven is not something that works for me. That has been true since I was twenty-one. After having been in the habit of working out and then abruptly not being in the habit, the dearth of energy--coupled with the internal litany of failure: silence, sedation--became the paralytic that so many of us know so well. The longer I went without doing any of the things I knew worked well for me (writing, eating/sleeping properly, doing something useful with my body),  the harder, of course, it was to start back up with any of them. The task becomes monumental.

What I did have, though, and this isn't to be underestimated, was the NHL season. It sounds frivolous, I know, but it made some serious differences. On one hand, it was something to look forward to, something to get excited about (which is important in that long dead space where baseball had been). It was another community for me, too, centered mostly on Twitter--not that I interact with it a great deal, but it lead to discovering a lot of great hockey blogs and their authors, the You Can Play Project, and a lot of fantastic information about teams and players. For a collector of trivia like myself, for someone who loves and lives for the internal narratives (real or imagined), the whole social media aspect of sports fandom is a dragon's hoard.

Where there is engagement, there is communication, too. As winter trudged on, I wasn't writing, but I was trying to convey some sense of what I felt, that energy, to people who didn't get it at all. When that didn't work (and apologies to the colleagues and family members who are completely sick of me talking about the Penguins), the words turned inwards. That wasn't new. I'd been monologuing to myself, in all of the wrong ways, since January. But this time, the narrative was different. It wasn't my narrative. It was the story of everything else, at least the hockey-centric version. By the time it all built up around the end of March--the playoff race heating up--it all slipped sideways, into fiction. That's where I live. It was good to be back, though it was, at first, hard to recognize the place.

This project has done a lot of things it wasn't supposed to do. It started in short stories. That's extraordinarily rare for me. This project actually became the glue for the first batch of short stories I can think of as a real collection, one I actually sent out into the world as a collection[2]. Then it became the kind of project I dream about: the kind that won't let me alone. It has changed its trajectory in some unexpected ways, too, and has gone on longer than anticipated (no one is surprised), but it also muscled everything else into place.

At roughly the same time the writing came back--No, stop, I am lying. It didn't go anywhere. It never goes anywhere. I just fail to pick it up, I put my head in the sand, I close the door tighter, all out of sense, all out of reason. I have learned that much: I don't suffer from writer's block. I am never at a loss for things to write. When I don't write, I am choosing not to. To know that I have chosen that--that I have also then elected to feel like hell for weeks and months--is a hard thing to know. But this series of posts is about loss and ending and I acknowledge the time that I lost and now I say I am ending that.


At roughly the same time I chose to write again, my desire to do things again picked up. My beloved garage gym remains a thing that probably won't work for me again (timing, now, most particularly), but I've joined another. I work out by myself, or at least it seems so from the outside. But I have a head full of company, all of these characters living and working and yes, also working out, and everything is connected and the (completely invented) people I am writing about critique my music as I get back to the good place on the pull-up bar. I've found out that I can--if necessary--write notes while running at a fair clip on the treadmill. I've also found out that losing my balance and somehow managing to drag my shin across the spinning treadmill belt results in a really spectacular brushburn. These last two things, of course, are totally unrelated.

In the months of April and May, I baked my own bread. Throughout the summer, I took an active interest in making sure the food I was eating was actually food. I've never been a fast-food aficionado, but I would happily eat breakfast cereal and delivery pizza for the rest of my life. That leads to a lot of two p.m. face-plants for me. Throughout the summer, I never quite made it back to my five a.m. wake-up, but I managed six or six-thirty consistently. I had two thousand words by nine, most days. Many days, I kept going. In the afternoon, gym. I kept that. For most of three months, excepting the Montreal trip and a weekend with friends, I managed to do the things that keep me whole (and the two trips had, of course, other ways of doing that, including reminding me of the real, actual human beings I know and that I like them and enjoy leaving my house sometimes).

It is a really short list of things:

  • wake up early, no matter what
  • write, goddammit
  • eat food with food in it
  • make the body do something
It shouldn't be a hard list to manage. The last two of those points seem to be universally recommended and endorsed. Still, I have my share of anxiety about it--because they're so simple, they're easy to push away. They don't feel important because they are basic, and they certainly don't sound important to many other people. And I have a job. I am blessed with a full-time teaching job, and I am grateful to have it. I love what I do. I also know, though, that my brain is wired to put the needs of the many (my five classes of students) before the needs of the few (me). I have classes every day of the week, office hours every day, too. When the system breaks down, it breaks down here.

What I managed this week--in the three days my college has held classes and last week when the days were full of administrative and committee duties in preparation for the semester--was to keep those four points. Since classes started, I've managed the five o'clock wake-up. I've unraveled big problems with the book. I'm not making the big two- and three-thousand-word leaps anymore, but the progress is steady. The progress has to tread more carefully because now we have to know where we are going. We tread more carefully, this progress and I. 

Three days is, of course, absolutely nothing. These are three days when I have nothing to grade, three days when my students are still in their late-summer bloom, deciding, too, that this semester will be different. 

But these three days have been the reminder of what each day could be like. That seems a foolish thing to lose.

[1] The fargle-bargling comes from Zoo With Roy, my favorite Phillies blog.
[2] Congratulations to Lee Upton, winner of the BOA Editions' 2nd annual short fiction prize!

20 August 2012

Goodbye, plot issue. Goodbye, sense.

Not quite a placeholder, not quite a proper post. Two things:

A) My bike's "tune-up" is still not complete. They've had it since Thursday. I've been inventing versions of what might be taking so long. These are some of my favorites:

  • It died in the bike shop's care. Its jankiness was terminal, and it passed on. They hoped I'd forget about it, but I called today, and now they have until tomorrow to find another bike exactly like mine and hope I won't notice. BIKE SHOP GUYS, I WILL TOTALLY NOTICE. The mostly non-functional right shifter's numbering is worn away in a very specific fashion, right at the point where the shifter, as I discovered, basically becomes a chain-disengaging sponge. Bike-shop-guys will only see a reason to put it in a woodchipper. I see distinguishing scars.
  • It's actually sentient and has been carefully self-destructing in small, mostly innocuous ways so that I would let it go. It has left the bike shop and found a metal-smelting shop. It has lowered itself slowly into a pool of molten metal because it's the only way to destroy itself before it can be used as a weapon against its own fight for good.
  • They took the bike to a ranch where it could hobble about with rusted Huffys and the bikes that had never been put together properly by department store summer temps. But misfit bike had learned to love its new home, and now the misfit bike, and its new friends, are slowly making their way back across the prairie to return home. 
  • Misfit bike hates all of these movies and is insulted by this nonsense and it refuses to come home ever.
Or, more likely, none of the bike shop guys (because they are all guys, and they're all about twenty-four, it seems, with the exception of the owner) can bring himself to touch the thing long enough to fix it. 

B) I said this was a series with elegiac flavor. Instead of just inventing farewells and returns for my misfit bicycle, I also got to say goodbye to a really vexing plot hole in the novel. I wrote about it on my Tumblr, here. (I've been hanging out on Tumblr tonight because Roxane Gay rocks my world.) It was also a reconnection with some things I know about my writing process, and knowing things--what works and what doesn't and how to effectively manage that--is the much longer, possibly less ridiculous post I'm working on.

16 August 2012

What It Isn't Like, Part I

My history with bicycles is not a very storied one. I didn't learn how to ride properly (a term used incredibly loosely) until I was probably ten or eleven, when a trip to Ocean City, NJ, and the inevitable bike rental on the boardwalk, in the company of a friend & her whole family, meant doing it, regardless of whether I could (in the sense of being comfortable or competent--I'd settle for either). There were a few figuring-it-out moments earlier; I think I received my first bicycle--my only bicycle, at least until incredibly recently--for Christmas when I was about seven. Somewhere around age nine, I wrecked it spectacularly. It still had the training wheels on it, brittle white plastic discs, and I say spectacularly because it was a fairly spectacularly dumb way to wreck a bike, at least compared to the grisly and deeply cool stories all my friends had. I simply managed to tip a bike--one that had four wheels on it at the time--off the crumbling berm on my grandmother's narrow, creek-bracketed road. (All of the significant roads in my childhood are like this.) I don't remember the falling part at all. I do remember the aftermath: the training wheel on the right side shattered, which cut up my ankle pretty badly because I was not at all agile or smart enough to at least pitch myself free of the wreckage. Thinking about it now, it feels a little like those Calvin & Hobbes strips.

The genius of Bill Watterson

Except it wasn't an explicitly adversarial relationship. The bike--now without training wheels, which made my parents happy, I think, because now I'd have to learn to ride the bike properly--was kind of a non-entity to me. There wasn't anywhere I could really go on it. I grew up in the utter middle of nowhere, and riding on the road (always narrow, crumbling, creek-bracketed) was verboten by my mother. Probably because of my propensity to just fall over on the bike, as exhibited above. Blessings upon my parents because they did everything they could to help me figure it out, including driving me and the bike to the empty high school parking lot and jogging along behind me. I remember my dad running with one hand fisted in the hood of my winter jacket as I pedaled, ready to lift me out of the inevitable wreckage. I wasn't very big, so the system worked more or less for my safety. In the end, it worked enough. I managed three years of beach trips with my friend's family, and those were the only times I rode a bike each of those years. Angelina and I rode tandem bikes sometimes, too, which helped, or several of us (she has three sisters) trundled along in one of those surreys that are super-fun to be in (especially when one is twelve) and probably dead annoying to everyone else on the boardwalk.

When those trips ended after the sixth grade, the bike ceased to be part of my consciousness. I was--am--a walker. As an adolescent, I preferred the woods for my angsty sojourns. As an adult, I still prefer the woods, whether the sojourns are angsty or otherwise. But now I live in a place where there are locations a few miles away I often go, places like work, the gym, the grocery store. The miles are few enough that driving my car, especially while the weather is still mild, tangs of the ridiculous, but even three miles of walking in one direction adds enough time to the activity that the walk can be prohibitive. I thought of solutions. I encountered resistance:

I have been informed by several parties that I am not permitted to put a horse in my--or my neighbors'--back yard.

The sidewalks of Casper are not skateboard- or rollerblade-friendly.

I have been further informed that a team of sled dogs is not an option, no matter how happy a gaggle of Huskies would make me, no matter how many times I have read The Call of the Wild.

A camel is right out.

So: a bike. The championed conveyance of the fit, the environmentally conscious, the frugal, the badass (wherein I think of my friend Vanessa, the cyclocross ninja, and my former student Rachel, who rode across the United States the summer after graduation). It's been nearly two decades since I've ridden a bicycle, and I'm not sure I'd ever really call what I did on a bicycle "riding," at least not in comparison to pretty much everyone else I know who's ever ridden a bike.

I have to tell you that the cliche, at least as it applies to me and my riding of bicycles, is bullshit. Riding a bicycle has never been like riding bike. Knitting is like that. Ice skating is like that. Time doesn't matter: the body remembers. I think solving quadratic equations would be more like that, actually, more attuned to some kind of muscle memory than the bloody bike-riding, and I probably stopped doing that at the same time I last rode a bike. I like other activities sort of like cycling, in that they transport; horseback riding, though I've done that about as many times as I've ridden a bike, feels natural and easy and comfortable. I can rollerblade and ice skate. I managed enough coordination to play softball and field hockey and soccer and recreational ice hockey. There is no reason that a bicycle should remain so opaque (particularly since I live in a residential neighborhood, full of kids from four to fourteen, who zip about and set up ramps in the street and noodle around with their feet on their handlebars in blissful ignorance of my seething envy). I don't even want to get in touch with my inner X-Gamer in this arena; I just want to be able to get to the grocery store and back without getting in my car and without the ice cream melting.

I bought a bike, of course. I may have made a foolish decision in buying the bike I did, a clearance-rack mountain bike from Target, but it had a small enough frame that it fit me with the seat at the lowest setting. Nothing appeared to be lopsided or wobbly or visibly broken, and that was good enough for the experiment, which had several phases.

Hypothesis A: I can figure out the mechanics of riding because I am a damn adult possessed of an able body and a sound mind.

Null Hypothesis A: I cannot figure this out and the ten year old girl across the street who says I am crabby and who grills me about where I have been and what I am doing every time she sees me will have won. (Or a slightly less dramatic version, really.)

Hypothesis B: I will actually enjoy the act of riding my bike and wish to do it more often.

Null Hypothesis B: Riding the bike will bring me no enjoyment.

Hypothesis C: I will actually manage to make the riding functional, allowing me to get to work without trying to put my car anywhere on the construction-riddled campus and to get to the gym & grocery store, where I will get to enjoy feelings of great triumph for a while, and then at least some general smugness after that.

Null Hypothesis C: Nothing will function. Failure on all counts.

I've had my bike for a little over two weeks. In that time, I have replaced a leaking inner tube and added a seat-post rack. That time has also yielded data:

  • Hypothesis A: confirmed. I haven't fallen off of the thing. I can manage to do effective signaling, too, though it is a bit terrifying to take one hand of the handlebars. But it wasn't easy, wasn't instinctive, and isn't getting easier quickly (though incrementally, yes).
  • Hypothesis B: confirmed. I do enjoy it, particularly in the sense that it's rather freeing. Not-unexpected complication of B: ow. But, as with all things physical, the body adapts. Or gets told to suck it up.
  • Hypothesis C: complicated. Last night, I did a test-run of the route I wanted the bike for most: home to work to the gym. The long, gradual grade of the second mile to the gym and my rubber legs notwithstanding, I managed. I also managed to discover two other things. 
    • Changing gears on this particular bike consistently results in the chain disengaging from the sprocket, which means that pedaling does nothing
    • I can fix the thing enough to get me home without being hit by a car. Pretty proud of that actually, as I know bugger-all about it. Yes, every child on my street can do the same, too, but still. 
I'm going to take the bike to a local bike shop for a tune-up tomorrow (which will cost more than I paid for the bike). We'll see what they say, and I'll cap this upon learning the verdict. 

Hypothesis/Wagers/Jokes in Poor Taste About a Film That Still Makes Several Generations Cry:

What are the odds that there's an Old Yeller moment at the end of this? 

(I said this was a series of elegies. I didn't expect this kind, but I'll write it if I have to. That's what we do here.)

Update: Bike shop says I can expect then to be done with my bike in the vicinity of Monday. So, Part II will come sometime after that. Other bits in this series will come between then and now.

14 August 2012

An Experiment in Elegy

This evening, inspired by two friends who've really gotten into the blogging groove, I sat down to write a post. I'd been thinking about it all day, actually, making notes while at work (beside other notes from a quality workshop on learning communities, which are awesome). I started writing, but, as pretty much most posts around here lately have done, it quickly turned into an utter sprawl.

I've been fighting sprawl. I tore apart my bedroom on Friday, all the way down to the point of altering the way I fit my clothes into drawers. August, the dawn of the academic school year, is really my own personal January. Maybe it's because I can't really stomach the idea of "new year" in the depths of winter. More likely it's that August is the month of Having To. No amount of Preferring Not To will prevent the coming of the new school year, and August means that I have to push back against my own comfortable disorder. Sometimes that means I decide that I have to roll all of my jeans and get rid of a lot of t-shirts, probably because it's a way to avoid the rest of the Having To. And sometimes it's because something needs to feel fresh, needs to feel like it's starting over, and it's a lot easier to start with my socks and hooded sweatshirts than with anything else.

Still, in a week, I'll have four classes and an independent study that need to be well organized for my benefit and for theirs. And every semester, I want it all to be better, faster, stronger. Every August, I want it to be the right start. Every August, it isn't quite right. Most particularly because it's happening, again, in August. I said I'd do it little by little, through June, through July. And I do some of that--I make notes about the big changes, new assignments, what to add or subtract from the semester plan--but I never get to actually making the reading schedule before now, never change all the dates on the syllabus until just yesterday. Nevertheless, those things do get done. I've written the new paper assignments and have come up with activities that mean everyone will have to be responsible about the reading. I've Had To, and so I Did.

All of this, though, is also me trying some diversionary tactics on myself. Because despite all of this fresh start business, August is also always a time of ending to me. It's the end of summer, and it's not just that it's the end of "vacation" (how much summer isn't a vacation now that I'm an academic lifer is another post a lot of other people have already made, so I won't make it again). It's that it's the end, too, of the long light, the warm weather, the peaches and fresh berries and the rumor of good tomatoes. The things I love best. Baseball. (Hockey is coming, I hope, to buffer the pain, but more on that later.) It is the end of the long, quiet days of methodical work.

And so: an experiment in elegy. I'm going to write a series of blog posts, each devoted to its own variation on the theme, which will also help to corral the sprawl.

The elegy is, by its very definition, a lament for what has been lost, and it is a literary form near and dear to me. (I once fancied myself an Anglo-Saxonist. Elegy is ninety percent of our material.) I've thought about this for a bit, though: is that the right choice during a season when I am predisposed to melancholy?

I did what I always do when I am uncertain: I thought about Beowulf. It is 3182 lines of elegy, bidding goodbye to not only its titular character but also to an entire way of life. Again, I questioned the idea: is saying goodbye the way to begin anything?

But of course it is. The elegiac impulse is also to take stock, to order, to recollect. It is to catalogue and to assess. In the poem's end, Beowulf asks Wiglaf to collect some of the treasure from the slain dragon, so he can look at it before he dies. He says (and this is from Seamus Heaney's translation, which is lovely and wonderful and what I recommend if you don't want to get fantastically cozy with Klaeber's edition and an Old English grammar textbook),
"Away you go: I want to examine
that ancient gold, gaze my fill
on those garnered jewels; my going will be easier
for having seen the treasure, a less troubled letting-go
of the life and lordship I have long maintained." (ln. 2747-2751)
Yes, it sounds heavy. But this is also Beowulf looking back on his legacy, and, a few lines later, he gives his thanks that he's able to see what he has done. (Those pagan warriors: all about seeing the payoff. Not so much about planning for the future.) And he is, as the sword-breaking badass he is and has been, completely satisfied; he's an old man with a dead dragon and a centuries-large hoard of treasure, all to his credit. (Herein lies the breaking point for the poem: the greatest warrior cannot be the greatest ruler--their priorities will never be the same, but this isn't about that so back to blogging experiment.) And he institutes a new beginning: he passes his kingdom to Wiglaf, and though the poem tells us--in content and by its form--that the Geats are making a solid break from a way of life they have known, are bidding goodbye to their last hero, it's not without some hope. Wiglaf learned how to do the right thing, and it's in his hands the Geats are left.

I think--I hope--that if I can take some stock, to order this tiny universe, the transition won't feel the way it always does (chaotic, occasionally doom-laden, depending on the weather). And even if it has, I'll still have some writing to show for it.

I promise it won't all be terribly serious. I have a story to tell you about a thirty-year-old learning to ride a bicycle. It's part of all of this beginning and ending.