06 November 2013

Travel Light: A book recommendation & a November impossibility

Several years ago, the inimitable Linda Koons sent me a book: Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison. It's a short, sharp tale, a Norse fairy tale, rubbing up against allegory in a way that reminds me of The Little Prince, but the unrelenting, marvelous Norseness of Travel Light also means it is nothing at all like The Little Prince. It's been years since I read Travel Light, and it's on my campus bookshelf, so I can't really turn to it now and dig you up a quote or anything like a proper review, and that's not what I'm doing here this morning, anyway. It's simply that I'm on my way to the airport quite soon and I was thinking of it and I wanted to say so. It's a beautiful little book, hard around the edges, the way stories of its kind are, and it's also a wind-bitten, incredibly sunny November morning. How can I avoid thinking of it?

And I am thinking of practical details. I'll be in Corpus Christi from Wednesday until Sunday, and I'll be attending the National Learning Communities Conference. As a new Learning Communities program director, this conference is an excellent opportunity to learn a great deal, and, having looked at the schedule, I fully anticipate shuttling from session to session for three days straight. This is a very good thing. But I'll also be in four different airports, twice, on six flights all together, and there are mornings and evenings and stray bits of time between events, and it's hard to know what to bring.

Writing wise, it seems I've never been better equipped: I have a few dozen small projects to work on. But because this wouldn't be a post on my blog without me whinging about my novel, there's that, too. There's always that, looming (and companionable) in the back of my mind, and it's ridiculous to even think about traveling light. (That Corpus Christi also requires me to add a rain jacket to my suitcase, too, adds a material dimension.)

...Middlemarch is also going with me. The edition I'm reading is a Norton Critical, which means it weighs more than it should because there are so many of those onionskin pages jammed between its covers.

I want, very badly, to take knitting along. The best project for it, though, is getting too large, and it's something that requires multiple colors of yarn, which means multiple balls, taking up more space, and I am dedicated to a) not checking luggage on a trip like this b) actually respecting the dimensions allowed for carry-on items. I also am not-taking the knitting because it's an excuse. It is always an excellent excuse: I can neither read nor write while knitting, and I know myself. During my five-hour layover in Houston, when I could probably finish a draft of a short story or finally get to the back cover of Middlemarch, I would knit (and listen to hockey). And it isn't that I don't love knitting; it's that it's always too easy to love.

And that weighs on me. (Every breathing moment I am not writing or reading weighs on me. I intended to write this morning. Instead, I cleaned some things because I'm going to be gone for four days and I went to buy toothpaste because I didn't have a TSA-approved size in the cupboard and I had a bunch of angst about how I did those things instead of writing.)

And that's ridiculous.

It's a constant struggle to balance good discipline (which leads to good craft) and masochism for the sake of it. Ten minutes ago, I decided that I'd rather be the person in a suit carrying a be-patched and be-buttoned backpack because it's just a lot more useful to hold my stuff than the laptop bag I have for work. And that's going to be fine. There's more room, for one. There's a pocket expressly for my indispensable, unspillable travel mug.

And because there are a few minutes until I have to leave, I reserve the right to change my mind about the knitting.

Travel light.

It's an excellent book. I still take everything too literally.

02 November 2013

now what?: on writing I don't know how to share

On Wednesday, October 30, at 10:15 a.m., I received the new issue of The Classical Magazine (issue six) in my inbox (as a PDF because the only iDevice I own is an iPod so old that it can sing along with most of the music on it). The premise of this issue is econo, short pieces of prose and poetry and the things between, and it is full of work by writers I enjoy and admire. But I haven't read any of it yet.

I have work in this issue, too, a short nonfiction piece called "First Star," my first published hockey-writing, a piece woven around Sidney Crosby's broken jaw, a Predators-Avalanche game I went to last season, and Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. A piece hinging, in many ways, on Semyon Varlamov and his play with both Colorado and Yaroslavl. I wrote the piece in the first third of October, about events from last season.

On Wednesday night, I was having a Twitter conversation about Varlamov, his kickass season so far, his apparently affable nature. Half an hour after that, the news broke that Varlamov had turned himself in to Denver police and was arrested on domestic violence and kidnapping charges. I turned my attention to the Penguins' game in-progress, I circled social media warily, I tried to focus on new writing tasks. Mostly, I felt sick to my stomach. Mostly, I didn't want to read anything, anywhere, at all.


It's been a few days since then. I don't want to think he's guilty, but I also refuse to assume he's not because already the crows are calling the alleged victim a liar. (Women are just like that, lying about terrifying and humiliating things for money and attention.) Already the heads are shaking and saying that it's just not possible that Varlamov could do such a thing. (Everyone knows nice guys don't do bad things.) Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy gave Varlamov the start last night in Dallas because he didn't see any reason not to. Varlamov has yet to be officially charged with any crime; he posted his bail; he is, legally, quite free to play. The slow unfurling of legal procedures proceeds apace, and it's unfair of me to assume guilt or innocence in any direction until that process is completed if I believe in this legal system.

I do. And I don't.

As someone who wants everyone, under all circumstances, to have the right to real due process, not just torches and pitchforks, I must believe in this legal system. As a general optimist and person who attaches affection easily to people, places, and things, I cling to that benefit of the doubt. I want this goalie whose play I appreciate and whose career took a path I found conveniently symbolic to be innocent. And I mean squeaky-clean, photographic-and-eye-witness-evidence-plus-retinal-scan-that-the-accused-was-instead-volunteering-at-a-trick-or-treating-event-for-at-risk-youth-at-the-time-of-the-events, evil-impostor-committing-crimes-in-my-stead innocent. Except not exactly that either because I also do not want, at any time, for anyone to be guilty of domestic violence. Of violent crime of any kind. Because I don't want people to commit acts of violence. Ever.

I want desperately for the system to work, too. If he's guilty, I want every possible book thrown at him, preferably by Aroldis Chapman (metaphorically, of course: the weight of guilt should feel like that fastball in the unprotected ribs).

As a human being who's walking around this world with eyes open, too, I know that the system often doesn't work. I know that many cases like this (domestic violence cases, cases involving high-profile, wealthy persons) don't reach trial stage. They can be settled out of court, charges can be dropped (and not because they were invented but because of a host of larger, frightening reasons), and the very idea of the system can be collapsed before one even gets to the part I think of as that proper due process. I know that due process doesn't necessarily lead to justice, either, and that more people want to believe that the victim is lying than to deal with the wages of a culture that excuses and masks violence.

I want an impossibility: I want Semyon Varlamov to be innocent and I want Evgenia Vavinyuk to be telling the truth.


This post was never anything I ever wanted to write, but I also couldn't say nothing, even if no one even noticed the connection: "Hey, you wrote that thing praising that guy who might have assaulted his girlfriend." It's most of what I've been thinking about since Wednesday, and even as it strikes me as egotistical that I am in fact thinking what about my writing? in this context, we are inextricably tied to our work. Better to acknowledge that than not.

I loved writing "First Star." I loved that Predators/Avalanche game I went to. How I feel about that piece of writing now--I don't know. Rereading it doesn't make it more clear. What is clear is this: I don't know how the rest of this story plays out, and I know that it will absolutely matter to me when it does. I also don't know how to compartmentalize--hockey here, humanity there. There are enough talented and skillful people in this world that I don't think it's too much to ask that we be good at what we do and also simply good. Decent.

And if I'm feeling uncomfortable about my own work in the new issue, there's no reason that I should feel that way about the rest of Issue Six. So I'm going to go read that, and enjoy it, and wait.

01 November 2013

another not-NaNoWriMo post

It's the six a.m. hour, and I've decided that the short piece I drafted at the beginning of the week is finished. So before I had a second cup of tea, I submitted it to two places, and it doesn't feel as unwise as maybe it should. (Of course, I trust my decision-making at this time of the morning far better than I trust it at two in the afternoon.)

At the same time, all over the world, NaNo'ers are leaping into beginnings, including my friend and colleague Jill. She came to dinner last night with notebook in hand, and it made me so happy to see that. Last night, at midnight (when I'd been soundly asleep for two hours), a local writing group had a NaNoWriMo kickoff write-in. I envy them. I envy their fresh starts sorely. I have never done NaNo, not in any way that is "correct," though I have made attempts of varying kinds to keep in the spirit. There is a buzz in the air about it, and anything that spurs one forward in any writerly way is a marvelous thing.

This, I suppose, is another of those keeping-in-the-spirit posts, though the last thing I can/should do this month is start anything new. My goal is more now in line with my 2010 November: do something that I need to do as a writer every day. Sure, that means sending out work, but more importantly, it means finishing.

I have folders of unfinished things, fully drafted short stories that don't quite work; half-written things that I'd forgotten I'd even thought of, let alone written; two-and-three word ideas that still blister and crackle no matter that I tossed them into a file years ago. I have kernels of pieces that can only become poems. I have a novel to be written, all furled potential; I have a full, old, old draft of another whose re-vision I'm starting to be able to see. More importantly, I have the novel I'm still working on, the manuscript I keep thinking is finished and keep understanding is not and the only right thing to do by that book that I love, the book that made me completely forget that there was a November last year, is keep working until it's right. Until it's as good as it deserves to be. And that is terrifying. It takes a kind of patience I don't have, that I have to make, and maybe I'm doing that kind of stepping back that Michael P. Nye wrote about earlier this week. I know good work takes time. I spent big chunks of my summer taking that time, considering things, and the revision I did in August did leave me with a better book than I had in July. I'm now understanding that "better" is no substitute for "right."

It's not right yet. I'm not sure what "right" is for it yet, but I know it deserves to be right.

So I will try to be patient and listen and if I can't do either of those things gracefully and contentedly (and I can't), I'll finish smaller works. They've been waiting longer still, and they deserve to at least get where they were going. I won't set another artificial deadline to finish another revision by a date or a time: I understand that my problem is not getting myself to work. It's not about spurring forward this time.

I do want it to be, though. I want to be part of the dash. I'm good at the dash--even elementary school gym class showed me that.

I loved gym class. The period was never more than forty minutes long, and in forty minutes, there was never enough time to get into the things I couldn't do. The longest we ever ran was a mile and a quarter. More often we sprinted. More often we dove after a ball, the goals quite clear, the scores clearer.

Novel writing is not gym class. Even my own process is not the one-size-fits-all yellow mesh pinnie, appropriate for all activities, no matter how much I want it to be. But there's something to learn from thinking about gym class--about exertion, in particular, because what is writing except exertion of one kind or another--no matter what shape I'm in, no matter what shape this novel or those drafted stories or those little poem seeds are in, I can do something. And so I must.