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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100 Days Journal, Armenian, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary American, French, LGBT, Non-Fiction, pride month, Stonewall, writing, Young Adult

Writing and Reading Recently

I’ve been pretty busy with both reading and writing, lately. I guess I am thankful that it is summertime and, while I’m still working hard on course preparation and planning for the fall term, I at least have a break from teaching right now.

Writing

A little more than three months ago, I began what I called the “#100DaysJournal” project. The goal is pretty self-explanatory: write in my journal every day for 100 days. Although I missed a few days here and there, extending my finish date by about a week, I’m happy (excited? stunned!?) to share that I did finish the project today. I was also really pleased to hear that a few people on Twitter have taken up the call, too, and they are also getting back into writing. Hooray!

The most tangible outcome so far is that I wrote 250 pages by hand, filling almost two full journals. The writing covered a whole host of topics, mostly mundane things, but some really important personal breakthroughs, some professional planning and reflection, and some important writing (WIP) items as well.

I did have a box of prompts to draw from every day, but after about 30-days, I tended to look at the prompt, consider it, and put it away. This is why my earlier posts on this project petered out; I really wasn’t following the prompts anymore and I didn’t find anything “thematic” to write about every 10 days, as planned. But that’s okay. I think the project itself worked out really well.

For example, I began to build a writing routine that now seems mostly natural to me. I get up a couple of hours before I “need” to every day, and that is my focused writing time every day. I walk to a nearby cafe, find a seat (usually the same one, if I’m lucky) and grab an iced coffee, and then I write. That’s it. Without this writing routine and the daily practice, building myself back up to the stamina I once had, I don’t think I would have gotten to the place I’m at now, which is to say, working on my second book.

In the last week, that morning writing time also started to incorporate the writing of my current WIP, a young adult (probably? not really worried about genre classification right now) novel set in the mid-1990s. It centers on the relationship between three friends, each of whom is dealing with an important personal struggle. Currently, I’ve written the first two chapters and outlined most of the third. It’s a pretty exciting time for me. I like these characters. I like the setting. I feel like their struggles are important, and that they need each other. And maybe I need them, which means perhaps other readers might need them, too.

Reading

I have also been focused on reading LGBTQ+ stories this month, in celebration of Pride month. I’ve now read the first two books on my list of six, which are Gemini by Michel Tournier and Hold My Hand by Michael Barakiva.

Gemini is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year. It’s both beautifully written and an important and powerful exploration of philosophy, particularly a study in binaries and dichotomies. The novel is essentially about a set of identical twins, Jean and Paul, who are so similar that even their own parents call them “Jean-Paul” for ease. The brothers form an intimate bond, presumably in the womb, which lasts through their childhood, youth, and into adulthood. One twin, however, tries to sever that bond, and the other chases after him. Their twinship and their manufactured differences are then reflected in the oppositions that Tournier explores in the unfolding of his tale, including the relationships between city and country, war and peace, heterosexuality and homosexuality, filth and cleanliness, rich and poor, Europe and elsewhere. It is, in all honesty, a strange tale, but it is a fascinating one. Written in the 1970s and set decades before that, the narrative also remains highly relevant. Take this excerpt about the Berlin mall and those trying to flee East Germany for the West:

There was something simultaneously tragic and ridiculous in the spectacle of those terrified men and women compelled to hurl themselves into space because they had left it too late before deciding to change sectors. One thought kept haunting Paul’s mind all the time: We are not at war. There is no earthquake, no fire, and yet . . . Surely it is very sinisterly typical of our times that what is, after all, a purely administrative crisis should lead to such scenes? This is not a matter of guns and tanks, but only of passports, visas and rubber stamps.

While Gemini is a heady and sometimes disturbing (although, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny) read, Barakiva’s contemporary young adult romance novel, Hold My Hand, is quite the opposite, despite the tension caused by the two betrayals at the center of its plot. Alek Khederian is a young Armenian-American teenager who is on the verge of “going all the way” with his older boyfriend, Ethan. At the same time, he is attending Armenian Saturday school, learning more about what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Just as Alek is celebrating his birthday, surrounded by his supportive family and his amazing boyfriend, and with the news that his “What Being Armenian Means to Me” essay has won top score at school, meaning he will get to read it at Christmas service, everything starts to fall apart. His boyfriend betrays him. His church betrays him. Alek is left to decide how far he is willing to go to repair the damage, how willing he is to follow the Christian tenant of forgiveness, and how capable he is in standing up for what is right, not just for him but for anyone like him. Despite an overwhelming number of proofing errors (there were dozens of places where I had to stop to edit a sentence — it was strange!), the story is compelling and edifying. I for one loved to read about a young person dealing with issues of faith, sexuality, and ancestry all at the same time, and I found learning more about Armenian culture to be one of the most rewarding parts about reading this book. It also reminds us just how difficult it is for anyone who is different to exist freely in public. Excerpt:

Holding hands now made something perfectly clear to Alek: that what he wished he could make the reverend father, his own parents, and all those well-meaning straight people understand was that he and Ethan would never really have the privilege of holding hands as a neutral gesture. The act, taken for granted by people all over the world, would never be just that for him and Ethan. Part of him mourned that possibility–of never knowing what it would mean to perform that act unitalicized. 

Currently, I’m reading Ocean Vuong’s new novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I’ve been looking forward to. Up next is probably Jane DeLynn’s Don Juan in the Village. Next month I will be focused on poetry (reading it and reading about it), so please send me recommendations of your favorite collections. I’ll be starting with Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook.

From A Whisper to A Riot

I also wanted to mention that my book of literary criticism/history is on sale this month ($5.00 ebook/$19.69 print.) This is in honor of Pride month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, which occurred in New York City in June, 1969. I was thrilled to learn that the book was Amazon’s #1 New Release in LGBT Literary Criticism!

I have also been overwhelmed and flattered by the great feedback the book has received online. I worked hard on it and am pleased and proud to have it out there in the public sphere, for others to enjoy and learn from.

 

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Essay, Personal, writing

The Note I Never Wrote

I first started coming out to people when I was sixteen.

It began with a friend who, as it turns out, didn’t deserve to be told first, but who was nevertheless mostly supportive in the beginning. A few months after telling a second friend, I told my sister. And that was the limit for a little over a year, until I went to college and came out more broadly to a whole bunch of friends and family back home, all at once during the first semester of my freshman year. I used a ridiculously cheap but safe-to-me method, one of those “How Well Do You Know Me?” personal surveys that were all the rage for a while back in the early-2000s.

For me, the process was mostly painless and undramatic, with the exception of a couple family members who did not take the news well. I didn’t expect it all to go very badly, but I also didn’t expect it to go as easily as it did. There are still some people who are uncomfortable with the fact that I’m gay, but for the most part I have been very fortunate to have a loving and supportive family and to have surrounded myself with good people, both before and after coming out, who never saw that one part of my personality as anything other than what it is, a normal aspect of who I am. I know how very lucky that makes me, which has always made this next part confusing and embarrassing to me.

After 20 years of being “out” in some form or another, I sit here during Pride month and realize that there is one coming out I have yet to achieve. It’s an even more painful one, something that I’ve hidden or avoided talking about for 15 years; only two people have known anything about it, all this time. I started to think about this while walking the mall a few days ago. I noticed so many stores have their PRIDE colors out and their love/equality merchandise on display. The commercialism of it is a double-edged sword, but for the most part I choose to look on the bright side: visibility is a good thing. To feel welcome in public spaces is a good thing.

As I walked through one store, though, I took a closer look at their Pride displays and read that they are partnering with The Trevor Project this year. With every purchase, customers can choose to “round up” to the next dollar, and all of those donations then go to help this organization prevent teen suicide in the LGBTQ community, where the issue remains severe and far too common. The juxtaposition of all those joyful, vibrant Pride colors with the reminder that, every day, there are queer kids out there contemplating suicide, was jarring to say the least, and it dragged me back to one of the most painful times in my life.

During my second year of college, I was, by all appearances, the happiest and healthiest I had ever been. As a kid who struggled his whole life with obesity and body issues, I suddenly found myself rather fit, making close friends, and doing crazy things like learning how to dance, performing on stage, going to parties, and all sorts of other activities I had only dreamed about since childhood. But, doing all of those things took a great deal of energy for me. I didn’t realize at the time what it meant to be as anxious and introverted as I am, so I ignored the pain of being in public and among people all the time, even though my mind and body were trying to tell me, again and again, that I was doing too much.

Eventually, I would listen, though, and retreat into an even unhealthier environment.

I was also dating for the first time. There’s a lot that could be said about who I chose to date and how those experiences went. It suffices to say for now that, none of those choices were healthy or right, and that I was looking for something to make me feel better, not realizing that this was just adding to the problem. It would take a long, long time to understand that what would make me feel better, feel like me, and feel like I deserved to be alright, wasn’t something I could ever find in someone or something else; not in a guy, not in a friend, and not in an activity. I realize now that I was overcompensating for the fact that I was not as happy or comfortable as I pretended to be, and that even though I was out and had been surrounded by friends who accepted me completely, I hadn’t ever accepted myself.

The combination of persistent, paralyzing body issues and lack of self-esteem plus the fact that I hadn’t yet accepted my sexuality, despite pretending confidence in both of these things, led me to long-distance online dating. There was something wonderful, I thought, about this opportunity. Here, I could be as romantic and loving as I wanted to be and fulfill any fantasies I had, emotionally and imaginatively anyway, but not have to risk being with someone physically. This meant I could “be me” in the safest way possible, and in the only way I thought would work for someone like me. Deep down, I was convinced nobody really wanted to be with me physically. I was so uncomfortable about my body, so unwilling to give myself up to another person, and so completely unsure of how I was supposed to “be” with another man, that I sacrificed the opportunity to heal those issues and learn more about myself. Instead, I would hide behind a screen and pretend to be happy in a digital relationship.

What I first thought to be the answer, turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of my life. The relationship I entered was an abusive one. I didn’t realize it at first, and even after coming to a slow and steady awareness about the kind of person I was dealing with, I couldn’t get myself to leave. Yes, it was a long-distance, digital relationship. Yes, eventually, I realized I was being manipulated by a sociopathic narcissist. But because my self-esteem was so low and because I had convinced myself that this kind of romance was the kind that I deserved, I stayed. I endured endless cruelties and started to doubt myself even more, even the things I actually was confident about. I started to question my own sanity and intelligence, and to berate myself for knowing the truth of the situation I was in but not being “smart” enough to get out of it. I started to blame myself and to hurt myself because I had convinced myself that if this person could make me accept these abuses, then some part of me must deserve the punishment and the pain.

After far too long, that relationship came to an end. It was, as can probably be imagined, not a pleasant parting of ways. But when it ended, I was left empty and devastated, and less in control of myself or my emotions than I had been before it all began. I know now that anytime a relationship ends, there is some pain and grief, some regret, even if things are amicable. But there should also be some growth, some path forward. Unfortunately, at that moment in my life, because I had been avoiding so many truths about myself in the first place and because I had been ground down by months and months of the worst kind of toxicity, I was left completely unprepared for the fallout and incapable of handling the loneliness and despair that followed. And because I hadn’t been honest with anyone about what I’d been going through, none of my friends even knew that I had been in this relationship in the first place. I felt quite literally all alone.

The night of the fallout, I was by myself in my dormitory room. A few months earlier, I had had my wisdom teeth pulled and there was a full bottle of pain killers left over in my closet. Never before that moment and never since have I ever had a desire to die. But that night, after 20 years of pretending to be happy, pretending to be normal, pretending to be that “ideal gay” who has his shit together and could do anything and be accepted by everyone, my inner pain spilled out, and I broke. I shattered completely and deeply, and in a way that I never knew a human being could break.

The tears started falling before I took the first pill and before I stepped out of my dorm room and started walking aimlessly in circles around campus. I remember the black and red hoodie I was wearing, because I kept the pill bottle in the front pocket, for easy reach. I walked around at midnight, at 1am, at 2am… popping another pill every few minutes and swallowing it with a sip of water from the bottle I’d remembered to bring with me. I passed the same group of students from my dorm three or four times. They were hanging out in the “smoker’s spot” near one of the back entryways, shielding themselves from the cold midwestern winds, and eventually one of them realized there must be something wrong with me, because he called out to ask if I was alright. Invited me to join them.

I waved him off.

Finally, I reached the bottom of that pill bottle. I don’t remember how many I had taken, but I do know it was mostly full to start. And nothing was happening. I thought the pills would have had an immediate effect. I thought I would be passed out in a field somewhere, or laying face-down on the sidewalk. But, mostly, I was just utterly exhausted and I couldn’t keep going. I felt a little dizzy and disoriented, and I was tired from all the walking. But I was still awake and still alive. Why? Another failure.

With the bottle empty and nothing happening, I went back to my dorm and sat down on a couch in the common room. A few minutes later, the guy who had called out to me wandered in and sat next to me. He started to talk to me, but I have no recollection of what he said. All I remember is the way it felt to have my hand wrapped tightly around that empty pill bottle, inside the front pocket of my hoodie. I can still feel the heat returning to my hand and making my fingertips tingle. I can feel the sweat making that small plastic bottle slippery as I debated taking it out of my pocket and showing it to this guy, which is what I finally did. I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know what to say. I was desperately confused, terribly embarrassed, and suddenly very aware of what I’d done. I was stunned.

He saw the bottle and immediately ran the few steps to the director’s apartment, pounding on it until she awoke. An ambulance was called, and I remember most of that ride, the questions they asked and the looks they gave me. I remember my boss riding with me, being supportive and asking me what happened, was it about a boy? And I remember the sidelong glances from the paramedics, the looks that I took to be disgust, and the way they spit out, “Ma’am, please stop talking.” I remember how humiliated I was when they inserted the catheter, how they took my blood, and when they asked me who they should call. And I remember my mom and my sister showing up. I remember their faces, most of all, though the face of the hospital psychologist completely escapes me.

All these things I will remember, but most of all, I remember how alone and confused I felt. Not just that night but, in retrospect, all the time.

When people talk about suicide, when they ask how anyone could do that to themselves, to their friends and family, I think back to that loneliness and confusion. I think about the façade I wore day in and day out, and the way that people saw me but did not know me. I think about how easy it is for us to imagine we understand the people in our lives, especially the ones closest to us, whom we love, and yet I know, intimately, that we may not know anything at all.

We say “things get better” and they do. We say “things are better” now than they were 100, 50, and even 5 years ago. And in many ways, that is true. But some things haven’t changed. The strength it takes to get up every day, knowing you’re different, is exhausting. The pain of having to come out not just once, but almost every day, in every public space or whenever you meet someone new, is ever-present, because the assumption of straightness remains. And the confusion about what it means to be gay, to be a boy or a girl, to be in a relationship or not, to be a friend, to be a son or daughter… that confusion is something, I think, almost everyone is trying to work out, all the time. It’s just especially difficult for those who are also questioning who they are and living in fear about being rejected or attacked for it at any given moment.

I never wrote a suicide note, so I’d like to think of this as a note of a different kind. A note I get to write because I failed. It’s a reminder, mostly to myself, to check in on people and to pay more attention. It’s nobody’s fault, what I did. Not that horrible guy, not the friends I kept at a distance, and not even mine. When you get to a point of true misery, you’re no longer in control. You’re not even yourself anymore. You’re lost and there seems only one way out. So, you take that route. You find that exit. In that moment, it seems entirely logical.

I can’t imagine, now, having tried to commit suicide. I can’t imagine, now, ever trying it again. But what I can imagine is the many seemingly valid and justified reasons why people, and LGBTQ+ teens in particular, make that choice every single day. I can imagine their pain, their loneliness, their fear. Because I’ve felt it, too.

I’m glad I’m still here. The friends I made in the months following that suicide attempt are still my best friends to this day. I met and married the love of my life. I went further in my education than my dreams ever really allowed, and now I spend my life educating others. I try my best, now, to really look at people. To see them in a way that I felt unseen, because I know what it’s like not to be able to look at yourself or show yourself to anyone else. I don’t know if it will ever make a difference, but I can’t risk closing my eyes.

I’m glad I’m still here. I’m glad I could write this suicide note.


To learn more about The Trevor Project and how you can help prevent suicide in LGBTQ+ youth, please visit: https://www.thetrevorproject.org

If you think you or someone you know might be contemplating suicide, please visit: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org

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Books, Non-Fiction, writing

Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin is a fantastic writer. I thoroughly enjoyed A Wizard of Earthsea (it was the University’s common read a few years ago. I really should read more of the series!) and have always wanted to read more of her work. So, last year, I picked up a couple of her books on writing, including this one and Conversations On Writing. I haven’t read the latter, yet, but I’m looking forward to it after having finished Steering the Craft.

The title is of course a metaphor for writing. Le Guin approaches the writing process with a wonderful sense of humor and beautifully helpful analogies to life and other messes, er, situations. What I find most helpful about the book is its design. First, each chapter is a distinct topic, important to the writer (the writer of fiction, primarily.) Unlike some fiction writing guides, however, Le Guin does not focus on the big-ticket items, like character. Instead, she moves in on things like grammar, voice, and point of view. Then, within each chapter on a single topic, she breaks things down into a few components: A) thoroughly enjoyable narratives on what she means by the topic, including definitions and her own explanations plus relationships/experiences with the topic; B) helpful examples from excellent sample pieces, like Jane Eyre, that help her illustrate what she means and gives the reader-writer a better idea of how someone does “this thing” well; and C) one or more practice exercises so that the reader-writer can test out their new knowledge in a practical way, and get to doing the work of writing, which is why she should be reading the book in the first place.

So, the book is not just a guide to a writing, but it is also a prompt for writing, too.

Another helpful element is the appendix, where Le Guin gives all sorts of useful advice about how to form and run and participate in a writing group, be it in person or online. She outlines some of the most helpful guidelines and articulates some of the problems and pitfalls, too. This might not be necessary for everyone (many reading are probably solitary writers, although, as Le Guin makes clear, that’s a habit worth breaking), but even if the reader-writer is already experienced in writing groups and/or has no current interest in them, they might find helpful information for themselves, here.

Finally, Le Guin is just fun. She’s brilliant and entertaining. She treats the reader-writer like a peer, not a customer or some “noob” to the scene. Reading the section on “the sound of your writing” and realizing that Le Guin has her audience in mind, just as she encourages the reader-writer to have his audience in mind, is a great way to begin, as it demonstrates her ethos in the most effective way. She tells, shows, does, and then asks the reader-writer to do the same. This is a teaching method I’ve been practicing myself for years, and it was seriously comforting to see a master writer doing the same. I’m eager to get back to her fiction, but also, especially, her Conversations On Writing.

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100 Days Journal, Journaling, Personal, writing

The First 10 Days #100DaysJournal

ScribeDelivery

Sometime in early February, I signed-up for a monthly subscription service called ScribeDelivery (only my second such service, but gosh, I might be getting addicted!) This particular subscription delivers journals and pens to my door once per month (and, I’m told, sometimes other items as well). As I was planning to begin my journaling project and to dive more fully back into writing, I thought this kind of monthly “treat” would be an awesome motivation and reward. My first package arrived yesterday, at last, and I’m pretty thrilled!

This one is, I believe, a bit larger than normal. The accompanying note explains that it’s a “first delivery” kind of package, so I think there are a few more items than usual. That said, it’s a great way to begin. As the image reflects, I received one regular size, Italian journal that has a bookmark and pocket; I set of “4 seasons” small journals, one with a cover design and color to match each season; two small “write it down” journals, and 4 pens (which are described as “Japanese pens” in the welcome letter, but some of them seem pretty typical to me. The fountain pen is a cool addition!)

Overall, it was a long-awaited and super fun package to open. I should mention that I already have a couple of concerns. The first is that the package took a long time to arrive and the reason for this wasn’t clearly articulated in the first order email. I tried messaging the company via Instagram, because that’s where I first connected with them and because the website didn’t have a clear contact area, but I got no response. I tried again with no luck a few days after, and then tried email and Facebook. It took about a week, I think, to get a response. The first reply came after my second question to them on Instagram, and it simply told me to check back on Facebook because someone would reply there. Uh, okay. So I messaged again on Facebook, and then got a canned response there and the same response to my email, on the same day. Awesome?

The second concern is that all of the items came in a simple bubble bag mailer. It’s possible the company is still new and working things out, but I was honestly expecting better packaging, not just a bunch of items slipped into a bag, free to slosh around (and, you know, there are pens — how easily could these poke through and fall out?) After checking the reviews, I noticed that comments about the packaging have been left in the past, with that very concern expressed (missing items), and that some have raised concern that their packages are pretty basic for the price. So, I’ll keep an eye on this, but I’m ready to give them another shot, partly because the first package was so cool and partly because I still love the idea of getting a monthly writer’s box!

100 Days Journal Update 1

About a week and a half ago, I mentioned that I was starting a new writing project that I’m calling “100 Days Journal.” It is just what it sounds like: 100 days of journaling. The hope is that it will accomplish a few things: 1) help me establish an effective routine; 2) help me practice and enhance my writing skills; 3) help me reveal to myself some of the things I should be writing about more in-depth.

Every 10 days, I plan to post  a little update right here on the blog, for posterity and for whoever might be interested in what I’m doing or who might want to try it for themselves (I know a few people on Twitter already are doing it.) My first 10 days went “swimmingly,” as they say. It’s the first time in a long time that I managed to write for myself every single day. I honestly can’t remember the last time I did this. I’ve always been the kind to have a good stretch of about 3 or 4 days, and then oops! I think it helps that I had already been getting up earlier than necessary for a few weeks to do other “pre-day” tasks, like reading for myself and taking a walk before work.

Although I’ve been using prompt cards and the topics have been fairly different, I’ve found some similar themes in my first 10 days: motivation, family, fears, and challenges. A lot of my writing has been reflective in the sense that, I notice what has been holding me back in various ways. I commented in yesterday’s journal that I begin to worry if this will be a place where I’m constantly putting myself down. At the moment, that comment seems a bit melodramatic, considering the kinds of criticisms I was giving myself were both true and constructive, and that in the 25 pages I wrote over these last 10 days, there is a lot of hopeful, positive, rewarding reflection, too. But I suppose many of us do often see and cling to the negative more easily than the positive, which is what makes any change or growth harder, and scarier too.

The truth is, I’m proud of myself for coming this far, and I’m only 10% of the way into this journey. Imagine how I will feel in 10 days, when I’m 20% of the way in! And imagine what else I might reveal to myself about myself, or what inspirations I might find, craft, or takeaway from these daily exercises?

The Prompts/Topics:

  1. Getting Started / Open
  2. What conversation do you need to have today?
  3. What are three major emotions that you’re carrying right now?
  4. Describe your ideal weekend.
  5. What’s the one thing you’d never do and why?
  6. What 3 people in your life do you envy professionally? Why and do you notice any patterns?
  7. How do you define success, and how will you know when you have it?
  8. If someone has hurt you in the past, write a forgiving letter to them.
  9. What aspect of your life is holding you back right now?
  10. If all jobs paid the same, what would you choose to do?

So, the first 10 days went well, and the prompts led me to interesting places. I answered each of them, but not as directly as I might have imagined. Typically, the answer revealed itself in something else I already needed to write about and which was somewhat related. It’s been a rewarding and healthy process so far. I’m excited to keep going!

 

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Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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Essay, Feminism, Kate Chopin, Literary Criticism, writing

The “Awakenings” of Edna Pontellier

awakening.jpg“She grew daring and reckless, overestimating her strength. She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.” Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) is the story of one woman’s realization of the world and potential within her. In her Journey, Edna Pontellier awakens to three important pieces of her own being. First, she awakens to her artistic and creative potential. This minor but important awakening gives rise to Edna Pontellier’s most obvious and demanding awakening, one which resonates throughout the book: the sexual.

However, though her sexual awakening may seem to be the most important issue in the novel, Chopin actually slips in a final awakening at the end, one that is hinted at early on but not resolved until the last-minute, and that is Edna’s awakening to her true humanity and role as a mother. These three awakenings, artistic, sexual, and motherhood, are what Chopin includes in her novel to define womanhood; or, more specifically, independent womanhood.

What seems to ignite Edna’s awakening is the rediscovery of her artistic inclinations and talents. Art, in The Awakening becomes a symbol of freedom and of failure. While attempting to become an artist, Edna reaches the first peak of her awakening. She begins to view the world in artistic terms. When Mademoiselle Reisz asks Edna why she loves Robert, Edna responds, “Why? Because his hair is brown and grows away from his temples; because he opens and shuts his eyes, and his nose is a little out of drawing.” Edna is beginning to notice intricacies and details that she would have ignored previously, details that only an artist would focus and dwell on, and fall in love with. Further, art is a way for Edna to assert herself.  She sees it as a form of self-expression and individualism.

Edna’s own awakening is hinted at when the narrator writes, “Edna spent an hour or two in looking over her own sketches. She could see their short-comings and defects, which were glaring in her eyes” (90). The discovery of defects in her previous works, and the desire to make them better demonstrate Edna’s reformation. Art is being used to explain Edna’s change, to suggest that Edna’s soul and character are also changing and reforming, that she is finding defects within herself. Art, as Mademoiselle Reisz defines it, is also a test of individuality. But, like the bird with its broken wings struggling along the shore, Edna perhaps fails this final test, never blossoming into her true potential because she is distracted and confused along the way.

A great deal of this confusion is owed to the second awakening in Edna’s character, the sexual awakening. This awakening is, without doubt, the most considered and examined aspect of the novel. As Edna Pontellier begins to realize that she is an individual, capable of making individual choices without being another’s possession, she begins to explore what these choices might bring her. Her first sexual awakening comes in the form of Robert Lebrun. Edna and Robert are attracted to one another from first meeting, though they do not realize it. They unwittingly flirt with each other, so that only the narrator and reader understand what is going on. For instance, in the episode where Robert and Edna speak of buried treasure and pirates:

“And in a day we should be rich!” she laughed. “I’d give it all to you, the pirate gold and every bit of treasure we could dig up. I think you would know how to spend it. Pirate gold isn’t a thing to be hoarded or utilized. It is something to squander and throw to the four winds, for the fun of seeing the golden specks fly.

“We’d share it and scatter it together,” he said. His face flushed. (59)

The two do not understand the significance of their conversation, but in reality, the words speak of desire and sexual metaphor. Jane P. Tompkins writes, “Robert and Edna do not realize, as the reader does, that their conversation is an expression of their unacknowledged passion for one another” (23). Edna awakens to this passion whole-heartedly. After Robert leaves, and before the two have opportunity to truly explore their desires, Edna has an affair with Alcee Arobin.

Though it is never directly spelled out, Chopin uses language to convey the message that Edna has stepped over the line, and damned her marriage. For instance, at the end of chapter thirty-one the narrator writes, “he did not answer, except to continue to caress her. He did not say good night until she had become supple to his gentle, seductive entreaties” (154).

However, it is not only in situations with men that Edna’s passion is flared. In fact, the “symbol for sexual desire itself,” as George Spangler puts it, is the sea (252). It is appropriate that the most concentrated and artistically depicted symbol for desire comes, not in the form of a man, who may be viewed as a possessor, but in the sea, something which Edna herself, once afraid of swimming, conquers. The narrator writes, “the voice of [the] sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace” (25).

This is perhaps the most sensual and passionate chapter of the book, devoted entirely to depictions of the sea and to Edna’s sexual awakening. It is pointed out here that “the beginning of things, of a world especially, is necessarily vague, tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.” Still, as Donald Ringe notes in his essay, “[The Awakening] is too often seen in terms of the question of sexual freedom” (580).

The true awakening in the novel, and in Edna Pontellier, is the awakening of self. Throughout the novel, she is on a transcendental journey of self-discovery. Edna is learning what it means to be an individual, a woman, and a mother. Indeed, Chopin amplifies the significance of this journey by mentioning that Edna Pontellier “sat in the library after dinner and read Emerson until she grew sleepy. She realized that she had neglected her reading, and determined to start anew upon a course of improving studies, now that her time was completely her own to do with as she liked” (122). That Edna is reading Ralph Waldo Emerson is significant, especially at this point in the novel, when she is starting a new life of her own.

This new life is signaled by a “sleep-waking” metaphor, one which, as Ringe points out, “is an important romantic image for the emergence of the self or soul into a new life” (581). A seemingly excessive amount of the novel is devoted to Edna sleeping, but when one considers that, for each time Edna falls asleep, she must also awaken, one begins to realize that this is just another way of Chopin demonstrating Edna’s personal awakening.

Another transcendentalist link to awakening can be found in the inclusion of Emerson’s theory of correspondence, which has to do with life’s “double world, one within and one without” (Ringe 582). Much of Edna is contradictory. Her attitudes toward her husband, her children, her friends, and even the men with whom she has affairs. These contradictions are encompassed within the idea that Edna was “beginning to realize her position in the universe as a human being, and to recognize her relations as an individual to the world within and about her” (33).

So, Edna’s true awakening is to the understanding of herself as a human being. But the awakening goes further still. She also becomes aware, at the end, of her role as woman and mother. At one point, early in the novel and before this awakening, Edna tells Madame Ratignolle, “I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something which I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me” (80).

William Reedy describes Edna Pontellier’s character and conflict when he wrote that “Woman’s truest duties are those of wife and mother, but those duties do not demand that she shall sacrifice her individuality” (Toth 117). The last awakening, to this realization that womanhood and motherhood can be a part of the individual, comes at the very end of the book. Toth writes that “Chopin makes the ending attractive, maternal, sensuous” (121). Edna meets with Madame Ratignolle again, to see her while she is in labor. At this point, Ratignolle cries out to Edna, “think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!” (182). It is for the children, then, that Edna takes her life.

Though the signs are confused, they are throughout the book; with a broken-winged bird symbolizing Edna’s failure, and the sea concurrently symbolizing freedom and escape, Edna’s suicide is in fact a way of her maintaining her independence while also putting her children first. It is ironic that the point in her life when she realizes a mother’s duty, is at the moment of her death. She does sacrifice herself, as she claims she never would, by giving up the chance at all she could have in order to protect her children’s future and well-being.

Spangler explains this when he says, “primary was her fear of a succession of lovers and the effect such a future would have on her children: ‘to-day it is Arobin; tomorrow it will be some one else. It makes no difference to me, it doesn’t matter about Leonce Pontellier – but Raoul and Etienne!’” (254).  Edna gives up the newly found passion and understanding, she gives up her art, and her life, to protect her family.

The Awakening is a complex and beautiful novel, filled with contradictions and sensations. Edna Pontellier journeys through life, awakening to the transcendental beliefs of individuality and connections with nature. She discovers sensual joy and power in the sea, beauty in art, and independence in sexuality. However, though some critics claim the ending to be the novel’s downfall, and what keeps it from top status in American literary canon, the fact is that it wraps up the novel in as beautiful a way as it was told all along. The novel ends in confusion and wonder, as it is told.

Edna spends her life, since the awakening, questioning the world around her and within her, so why not remain questioning to the end?  Spangler writers in his essay, that “Mrs. Chopin asks her reader to believe in an Edna who is completely defeated by the loss of Robert, to believe in the paradox of a woman who has awakened to passional life and yet, quietly, almost thoughtlessly, chooses death” (254).

But Edna Pontellier is not defeated by Robert. She is the one making choices, as she has determined to do all along. Her death was not thoughtless; in fact, it seems almost pre-planned, a “coming home” to the sea. Edna strips off her clothes and becomes one with the very source of nature which helped to awaken her to her own power and individualism in the first place. Further still, that she goes quietly is not an admission of defeat, but a testament to Edna’s ability to end her life the way she lived it.

Each decision that Edna Pontellier makes throughout the novel is done quietly, suddenly. The dinner party, the move from her home to the “Pigeon House.” There is never any ruckus or chorus, just simple, impassioned change. Thus, the novel’s conclusion is a statement to the enduring power of womanhood and individualism. Chopin is affirming that, even in death, perhaps only in death, one can become and remain truly awakened.

References

Adam W. Burgess, “The ‘Awakenings’ of Edna Pontellier.” Adam Burgess, Writer 03 Aug. 2018. https://adamburgesswriter.com/2018/08/03/the-awakenings-of-edna-pontellier/.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening. New York: Dover Publications,1993.

Donald A. Ringe, “Romantic Imagery in Kate Chopin’s The AwakeningAmerican Literature 43 (January 1972) 580-88.

George M. Spangler, “Kate Chopin’s The Awakening: A Partial Dissent,” Novel 3 (Spring 1970): 249-55.

Jane P. Tompkins, “The Awakening: An Evaluation,” Feminist Studies 3 (Spring-Summer 1976): 22-9.

Emily Toth, Kate Chopin. New York: Morrow, 1990.

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