Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to Stay Sane When the Cold Comes


The title suggests a strategy or course I've never implemented or sustained-- at least not since I was a child in this valley of the shadows of threatening clouds. October comes, and the brown and orange and yellow leaves turn, and in early November they fall with the first frost, one day a few on the ground and then in the first storm the rest all at once, until the branches are mostly bare and it's all winter coats and wool socks, and every breath is visible and the cold can be felt in the morning beneath the comforter and in a flush to the cheeks after even a short walk and in the toes at rest and in the bones at night, a chill whispered through windowpanes, slid under cracks, enveloping of all and everything. The cold comes, and true to form, I lose my mind.

It's recently been pointed out to me by friends more savvy than I am about the internets and the infinitely wired world we inhabit now that public statements about one's mental imbalance are likely unwise, probably ill-advised, capable of being used against you. That advice sounds sensible, which under the circumstances is precisely why I'm ignoring it. And before the kind comments arrive, the obligatory 'just wanted to be sure you're all right, so I don't attend your funeral under the burden of crushing guilt for having ignored your cry-for-help-cum-Facebook-blog-post,' know that I'm fine. I'm not crazy, not dangerous or endangered.

Not that it takes much to send me off into the desperate melancholy of seasonal affective. I've been popping Vitamin D and exercising until my body says no and begins to cramp and swell, and nonetheless I feel a little ragged, a bit wild-eyed, but I'm not to last year's Winter state. Last year some combination of drear, publishing angst and anxiety, and general loneliness had me posting selfies at a terrifying and unsustainable rate, with captions that begged to know why I was a failure at Tinder and OKCUPID and romance in general as I did my best 'Blue Steel' from a Myspace angle, or struck other questionable poses that at some point included me crossing my bared arms like Mr. T, crooking a finger to beg company for Friday happy hour, and engaging in a two-handed be-ringed finger-sign flashing of the universal symbol for 'ROCK AND ROLL!'

Stop, my friend Heather begged. Just-- please-- for the love of all that is good and holy, stop. It took her kids becoming my social media friends to cast a clarifying disparagement over my e-expression to confirm I had a problem and get me to stop. It took a sun-besotted summer of weddings and climbing for me to re-establish equilibrium. Evidently, it's taken only a fall of long work and manuscript disappointment and mid-thirties loneliness and absent friends and aging joints to set me back to the shaky, desperate edge of Seasonal Affective Disorder entirely anew. And I thought I'd recognize it and own up to it squarely and pre-emptively, as I've promised myself that the six months of the selfie are over for good, and so the considerable solipsism of the blog is the self-expression that's left.

For one thing, heavy users of social media in general feel more isolated from others, and less connected to the community around them. Research establishes that, but so too does my own experience; nothing convinces you you're a failure like your friend's considerable and sustained literary successes, like the happiness evident in the pictures of friends with adoring spouses, healthy smiling children, other people's tropical vacations and sports provocations and obvious, clear-cut declarations of HAPPINESS. This summer I went to the last rounds of the marriages of most of my college friends, my Teach For America friends, my childhood friends-- went to each wedding alone, that is. That this year, my best friend left this town for good meant that I lost the immediate touchstone I've taken for granted all these years. That my brother and his family will soon enough be leaving this town too, when he and his wife finish graduate school, that in the last years nearly all of my friends have left or are in the process of leaving, isn't about me, but about living in an university town which is necessarily transient. I've come to accept being a demographic anomaly here, a young professional in my thirties whose skillset and ambitions are less provincial than the place I've stayed. Yet it's not surprising that I find myself groping about the interweb seeking to recapture my connections to people who aren't here-- there are an awful lot of people not here, and it gets exhausting to begin anew, and anew, and then start yet again.



What am I to do? This fall of the bitter cold, much is at a crossroads. I wait on my agent to confirm that he can't sell my memoir, the work of ten years; do I expect him to sell the novel-in-dialect-stories I've nearly completed, an even less commercial manuscript? For a year I've endured rejection after rejection of the book, and kept a stiff upper lip, continued to believe in myself and my work and write more still. Kept on, as I've long preached, whatever the odds. It's not that I believe that finding a modest home for this memoir, or for this book of fiction, or for my next project or the next after that will somehow change everything. But I can't help but begin to believe in the impossibility of this calling, which isn't a reality I find comforting given that I'm not much good at anything else.


I do have to admit, I wasn't ready to come full circle, November to November, and not have placed a book, not have put myself in a position to change the trajectory of career or the direction of a rather austere bachelorhood. I wasn't ready for the cold and the rain, and the same work in the classroom, and to have more friends gone, and to miss them and those already distant, and to wonder about all of these choices that have brought me here, about what lies ahead, about how to keep the demons at bay. The pursuit of art or beauty or meaning, and whatever small happiness is possible therein and alongside becomes an act of endurance in imminent winter. And so, friends, forgive me a melancholic overstatement or three, the occasional raised and empty palms of despair, which is to say, of prayer, and if you're feeling similarly, I hope to offer you assurance that you're not alone. I find it hard sometimes to make it through, perhaps as we all do-- but we will, somehow, a self-indulgent selfie or two more or less.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Links, Miscellany, Musings

Summer is in full swing. After a most lovely two months in Portland, I am some thirteen thousand words into a new project currently titled "La Boheme Portlandia." The work-- potentially its own manuscript, or at least the particularly ambitious anchor to a book of essays-- concerns modern American society and culture and questions of how one is to realize the good life. In particular, I question our education system and its fairness and pedagogy and inequalities, the values and tendencies of our cultural elite in age of rising income inequality, the aggregate influence and role of the wired internet in our lives, and most especially, how the good life for white upper-class bohemians is dependent on gentrification and marginalization of minority communities. Portland is my case study.

As I note early (and complicate, elaborate on, and refute later):

"The good life has been misunderstood as slow growth, small aspiration, feckless meandering, the long slow circular cycle of craft beer and cheap whiskey and ceaselessly refilled bowls or vaporizers, of blurry nights astride fixed gear bikes flashing sleeves of tattoos and admiring them on others for the duration of time it takes to figure out what one should do when one grows up. La Boheme Portlandia is little different than La Boheme Brooklyn, except for the flashing of designer boots and jeans, hand-tailored from distressed fabric, and the stumble home made to finer, better appointed flats as enabled by trust funds and proximity to wealth. La Boheme America in 2014 is less a seeking of truth as it is a flashing of the cultural pastiche of the last three decades, signs and symbols disassociated from referents, the search for meaning replaced with the affirmation of mere presence. Showing up does not have to mean growing up or attempting anything beyond the trivial; one belongs by adopting the cosmetically acceptable enablers of hedonism. Happiness is realized in putting a bird on it, and so being released from any greater responsibilities or ambitions. Just be happy, man. Smoke a bowl, and cue Netflix. The rest will take care of itself."

Portland in the rearview mirror, I'm now fully into wedding season: four weddings in six weeks. A busy time celebrating the happiness of friends!

Over at The Goodmen Project, my essay, "Why I Hate Bullies," has received beautiful treatment.

Over at Triquarterly, my craft essay, "On Retrospection," recently was featured.

UNSAID 7 has just been released, and I am honored to have my nearly ten thousand word story, "In Every Song," included in the issue.

I am also pleased to announce that two excerpts from my memoir of teaching in the Delta have been placed with Waxwing: my essay "Lessons Learned," and an excerpt of the memoir titled "What Remains." Issue 5 of the journal goes live February 15.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hope in What Work We Do

My essay, Hope in What Work We Do, just went live over at The Goodmen Project:



As I stood at the dim bar examining the dance floor, prepared to be bored, I thought I recognized a Philipino girl with her hair pulled back with clips, and then thought the same of a black girl with her hair in tight, braided rows. And then I saw the two tall young black men with them, six-foot two or three or four, with their baggy pants and backward ball-caps, standing tall and confident with their arms crossed, the sort of young men who might get the Richard Sherman treatment at first glance for their swaggering, brazen otherness, for the way they took up space and occupied it with crossed arms. I recognized these young men, too—or at least, was pretty sure I’d taught them.

And then the girl with her hair in rows saw me, and smiled, and pointed me out to the group, and the Philipino girl, whose name I couldn’t quite remember, was skipping up and embracing me, asking me how I was doing and did I remember her from freshman year, and all I could recall was that she’d been raised by her maternal grandmother, who had told her to find a better life or else fail trying, which she’d written about in her identity essay; that, and how she, and all of them in this group, had been in a particularly rowdy class, a class of performers and clowns and outspoken, silly, loud, enthusiastic kids who had been particularly difficult and particularly fun in the late afternoon in spring years ago, at least three years ago, or hell, was it four? And by then the two young men made it over, towering over me, holding out their broad hands, which enveloped mine, and one of them, whose hair was braided and hung about his face, who I remembered had been the second in his family to take my class, an African immigrant family out of North Portland, a kid who’d written about how basketball had saved his life, whose older sister had written about how she feared for her brother, who was always getting in with the wrong crowd, seized my hand and took me by the arm and then the shoulder and said, “You were a great teacher. Thank you.”

Friday, October 04, 2013

The Game of Waiting

For years and years, I've preached process to my literary friends. I've listened to their fears and doubts about the long odds inherent in the pursuit of lyric and literary art, and affirmed them (since I share them). And I've insisted that considering the intersection of art and commerce is the wrong obsession, that all that matters is the work of making meaning which is an end unto itself. I've said, and meant, that the integrity of art lies purely in the purity of pursuit, that what matters is not publications or awards or pay, but in the doing which is its own reward, to have reached and to have honed and to have made as much as beautiful and significant as one can. I have meant what I said. But I find that faith being tested, now, by success I should be happy with: after all these years, I have an agent, and two complete manuscripts, a memoir of teaching in the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta and a novel-in-stories in the voices of Delta children, many of those stories new (written in the inspired flurry of the last year, the most productive by far of my writing life). I thought I would be happy to arrive, but instead I find myself, in this suddenly dark wet fall, in a state of panic and arrest.

That philosophy of process held up through what is eight years now of submissions to literary magazines and journals and newspapers-- held up through the years of rejection it often takes to place even an excellent story or essay out of slush, held up as fellowships and opportunities and lovers passed me by, as friends left and peers seemed to soar and I struggled on ground. I have a two-sided sheet where I scribbled my record of submissions, one side of which is in the photo below (the second side), an amazing visual record now of what persistence means. Things settled out in that process-- I ascended from slush with regularity, have published between four and eight pieces a year of literary fiction and nonfiction since 2008 in some of the country's finest venues, have won fellowships that formerly passed me by, have hewed to process and kept a stiff upper lip when disappointment ensued. I queried a 125 agents with parts of the two finished manuscripts that were enjambed and called a novel, kept on through two years of rejection until I realized each book had to live as its own expression. I realized that being published in literary magazines matters little, even good publications-- and just as I accepted how little it meant to be in The Sun or Gulf Coast or The Oxford-American or a Norton anthology, an agent came to me saying they'd read me in Creative Nonfiction and wanted to read the manuscript the piece had come from, and I sent it on expecting it to come to nothing and days later a phone call came from New York and suddenly I was revising the memoir, being told to withdraw stories I had out because we were going to take a run at the big magazines that only consider agented fiction, being prepared to go to editors.

Now, I'm waiting for my agent is going to tell me what he thinks of the newest revision of the memoir and strategize about where to send the four unpublished dialect stories, and I am a wreck. I have been psychologically dependent on production, on process, and there was a safety to that state of career-- I just did the work. Now, I have two finished (or near-finished) projects, and nothing to work on and no submissions to make and nothing boiling forth and I feel hollowed and crazy. This morning at the coffee shop, the fellow behind the counter said I seemed jittery. It's worse than that, really-- I feel sick with dread, shaken by the impending stakes, by verdicts with real consequences to come. Exactly how I used to feel before a big wrestling tournament; exactly why I grew to hate competition even as I loved the sport. And right now I feel similarly about writing: I miss the doing, the reaching for meaning, and can't bear to face the failure that may come.

Except. Except that the act of saying how I feel even in an inappropriate venue like a blog, is itself an affirmation and clarification. Friends, cut me some slack if I'm all over the place in the next weeks and months; writer friends, wish me the best as I wish all of you the best. If the submissions sheet must take more ink (I have always intended to retire it when I finally publish a book), so be it. I will persist, write more. I just hope that verdict is swift, so I can get back to the joy of the writing itself.