Blog Post, Buddhism, Monthly Review, Poetry, Teaching, writing

July, July!

Have you heard the song, “July, July!” by The Decemberists? You should.

This is the story of the road that goes to my house
And what ghosts there do remain
And all the troughs that run the length and breadth of my house
And the chickens how they rattle chicken chains
And we’ll remember this when we are old and ancient
Though the specifics might be vague
And I’ll say your camisole was sprightly light magenta
When in fact it was a nappy blueish grey
And the water rolls down the drain
The blood rolls down the drain
Oh what a lonely thing
In a blood red drain
July, July, July! it never seemed so strange

I always have two thoughts when July approaches. First: the song. It’s got a very “July” kind of vibe to it, which is appropriate. July comes just after the middle point of the month, and this song tackles the concept of memory, and how it fails us. But how much truth in memory matters? Does it matter that we remember things exactly as they happened? Or does it matter that we remember what we felt, what shaped us? The “ghosts there do remain,” indeed. Second: so many birthdays. My sister, two nephews, and some good friends all have birthdays in July. Maybe this is why I get along with Cancers so well?

Reading and Teaching

Anyhow, last month was my LGBTQ reading month and it went better than expected. I read a total of 7 books, all of them LGTBQ-themed. This month, I’ve turned my attention to poetry. I’m covering a few different approaches within this larger goal, though. For example, I’m reading two non-fiction texts on poetry and how to read and write it. I’m reading two short collections of poems by individual poets, and I’m reading one anthology. Finally, I will be reading one hybrid novel that contains poetry and is about a young poet.

As I work on my own novel, I find that I’m trying to avoid reading anything else in the genre (LGBTQ YA). I don’t want to be influenced or find myself doubting my abilities. So, instead, I’m pursuing other genres while writing, genres that are far from what I’m doing but still inspiring. I think, when I’ve finished the full draft and move on to edits and revisions, I’ll return to reading within the genre as a kind of research exercise. (“Am I doing what the genre is doing, generally, but in a way that’s unique to me?”)

I’ve become obsessed with Ocean Vuong, after reading On Earth We’re Briefly GorgeousI actually started following him on Instagram before reading any of his work, because I found his aesthetic interesting and had heard good things about him. And then reading him blew my mind to smithereens. I spent the last week reading some of his work in places like The New Yorker, as well as reading a bunch of articles about him in The New Yorker, Interview Magazine, The Paris Review, and Poet & Writer. In the interview with Poet & Writer, he commended his freshman English composition course and the community college experience with providing him a foundation experience, a welcoming and motivational environment in which to work with a diverse group of people, all of whom were there for the same reason: to improve themselves, to achieve a goal, and to fulfill a dream. It was a small but beautiful statement on the power of community college education.

All of this is to say, one of the collections on my reading list this month is Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. I’ll also be reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here (incidentally, I picked up a copy of John Okada’s No-No Boy recently as well, inspired by the disgusting concentration camps our government is operating, dysfunctionally, at the southern border.) I guess I’m on some kind of thematic kick for Asian-American writing.

The others on my list this month include the two I am reading right now: Thomas C. Foster’s How To Read Poetry Like a Professor and Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry, edited by Timothy Liu (whose collection, Burnt Offerings, is a personal favorite). I’m half-way through both of these, and I’m really enjoying them. The anthology is particularly interesting because most of the included poets are new to me.

After the Foster, I plan to read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.  When I finish the anthology and two poetry collections on my list, I will be completing the month’s project with Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X.

Writing

Speaking of writing: It has been going generally well. I joined Camp NaNoWriMo this month, which is like the regular NaNoWriMo except you can adjust your goal, create cabins to collaborate with others, work on any kind of writing you want (even though it’s an off-shoot of National Novel Writing Month in November, this one is really meant to get you writing whatever you want). The social media accounts also run regular “word sprints” to encourage people to sit and write, as well as offering up a variety of prompts, e-mailed encouragement, etc. My current stats on this WIP are as follows:

  • Today’s word count: 2,945
  • July word count: 24,492
  • Total word count: 34,545
  • Chapters: 11 complete of 31 planned

I’ve been averaging about one chapter a day. I get up early in the morning and head to “my spot,” which is the same spot I used for my 100 Days Journal project. I’ve found that creating and inhabiting one’s own writing space is crucial. Yesterday, after a sleepless night (thanks, insomnia!), I couldn’t get up to write. I tried later in the day and managed only about 1,000 words (about 25-30% of normal) and that was writing additions to a scene in a previous chapter, rather than working on a new chapter. I sat there staring at the “Chapter 11” header, at 2 in the afternoon, and simply couldn’t get anything onto the page. I guess I need my routine. (Is this what they mean by “creature of habit?”)

This morning, though, I managed to get up on time (despite another sleepless night) and got the chapter done. I’m happy with this pace and progress. If I can maintain it, then I’ll have a complete draft done by the end of July and can work on revisions and edits as the new school year begins, when the opportunity for new writing is, let’s face it, not readily available. I get too tired and too burned out from lecturing, grading essays, attending meetings and trainings, etc. I do plan to keep my mornings for myself, though, but rather than working on a lot of new material, I’ll probably be revising and editing, revising and editing. I guess this means, sometime around August I’ll be looking for beta readers. How does one go about doing that, anyway? And what about finding an agent? When is that supposed to happen? How does that happen? Oh dear.

Anyway, my first book, FROM A WHISPER TO A RIOT, recently received this very thoughtful review, and I’m so grateful.

Buddhism

Part of the reason I began my 100 Days Journal project about 4 months ago is that, in addition to wanting to “force” myself into a daily writing routine, I found I had been struggling with severe depression all year. Since about January, I’ve been in a slump. It’s not unusual for me to have ups-and-downs, but this was a long one, and that “light at the end of the tunnel” we who suffer from depression come to rely on, just wasn’t showing up. Not even a little pinpoint in the distance. I didn’t know what was taking so long to come out of it at the time, but I have my thoughts now. In any case, one of the things I’ve realized is that I’ve been craving a kind of reckoning with myself and my beliefs, for lack of a better word. I’m an emotional and spiritual person, though agnostic and anti-religion. Still, I do always, always look for connections. The bigger picture. The threads that connect all of us. I’m a hopeful person, I guess, and so part of my struggle lately has been finding hope in a time that seems hopeless, perhaps not even worth hoping for. As I thought about what might help me investigate myself and find renewed purpose, I started to learn a little more about Buddhism. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter:

Do I have any practicing Buddhist friends who would be willing to point me to good places to start my reading? History, tenants, meditation, zen, beginners guides? I can look up lists online, but I’d rather have personal recommendations from people living the path. To be honest, I’m looking to connect with myself spiritually, to understand and articulate my own value system. I need a philosophy or “faith,” for lack of a better word, that is without deity, and Buddhism is the closest practice I know of, currently. At my core, I’ve a desire to be driven by kindness and generosity. I’ve seen a lot about Buddhism’s mindful approach to acting and reacting with love. That’s the sort of thing I want to get better at, particularly now when, let’s face it, there’s a revolution of hate happening. Ultimately, even Buddhism might not be for me. It’s possible that no established “religion” will be. But I’d like to learn more about it anyway.

I received some excellent and helpful suggestions, as well as inspiring and motivational comments and conversations. I also discovered that some of my Twitter connections are practicing Buddhists, though I never knew it. What a world of possibilities and revelations can open to us, if only we have the courage to ask! I’ve begun my journey with The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh. So far, it is resonating with me. His style is warm and to the point. He explains a lot of how the history of Buddhism has been corrupted or altered (inadvertently or intentionally), and then gets into the tenants and philosophies, including what they mean and how to practice them independently. I’m excited to continue learning more, and I’ll probably stick with Hanh’s texts for now, though I also hear good things about Pema Chodron. Am I a Buddhist? I don’t know. I take a lot from Christ’s teachings, too, but I cannot be Christian (ask me about that some other time). It may end up the same with Buddhism, though something about this experience so far, and the embracing of human philosophy rather than the supernatural, is appealing to me.

Take a breath, and onward.

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