I’m typing this on the Peter Pan bus, en route to Woods Hole after a sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard. While there, I read, to a lovely audience at the West Tisbury Library, an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin that chronicles my failed attempt at becoming a cheerleader and my lifelong quest for genuine good cheer. There were other storytellers, and there was coconut cake and prosecco. Also, I got to visit with my friend Jennifer Tseng who is a poet, a librarian at the West Tisbury Library and now a novelist to boot. I reviewed her debut novel, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness last month on The Island Review. I thought I’d like to interview her about the novel and her writing process…so without further ado, I give you Jennifer! Continue reading In Which I Interview Jennifer Tseng about Writing a Novel
The All City ensembles are part of a free Chicago Public School program which provides opportunities for collaborative arts making to CPS students. This spring, I directed the All City Theater Ensemble with fellow teaching artist Ashley Winston. Our 8th through 12th grade students created an original performance called “Listen,” which explored the theme of voice and which they performed at the Harris Theater in downtown Chicago. This is an open letter to my students.
Dear All City Ensemble,
I want to share some thoughts that have been percolating since our show last month at the Harris Theater.
This spring, Saturday afternoons were my favorite part of the week, and that’s because of you. It was inspiring to see you dive in wholeheartedly to the process of creating an original performance that was fun and full of meaning for you and for your audience. It was a joy for me to talk, read, write and bring about a show about ideas that matter with some cool and interesting people. (That’s you.) I felt proud and moved by the energy and commitment you brought to rehearsal—reading Langston Hughes, Casandra Lopez and Afzal Ahmed Syed; discussing race and music and community; writing poems, rants and new definitions; blocking and choreographing and memorizing.
Sometimes, when you’re a teacher, you’re not sure if your students get it—that is, whatever you’re wanting them to get—you’re not sure what they take away. I hope you learned something about trying new things and messing up and trying them again. I hope you discovered something about taking risks and setting boundaries. I hope we created a space where you felt safe and respected. I hope you gained a sense of how to make something from scratch, from just an idea, of how to collaborate with a group, of how to say yes, and. I hope you learned some things about theater and writing—about rhythm and repetition and imagery, about physicality and blocking and specificity. I hope you walked away feeling heard. I hope you continued to develop a sense of your unique voice and some thoughts on how you might like to express that in the world.
I found a tribe and a home in theater when I was your age. (At which time I was obsessed with Prince the way some of you are obsessed with Drake and One Direction.) I loved how theater brought worlds into being. I loved telling stories. I loved living in stories. I loved the way the kids in a show fell in love with each other, the friendships and flirtations that came about from hanging out and getting to know one other. I loved the challenge of theater—all the skills it called into play, the ways it made me stretch. I loved the energy that sparked between performers, crew and audience.
I think you felt that energy that comes from working on a show with an ensemble you’ve come to know during the weeks of rehearsal. I hope you’ll continue to learn from one another. I hope you made some memories and some friends that will stick around a while. I know a lot of you had hurdles to overcome to be part of All City—you shuffled schedules, battled illness, juggled school and other extracurricular activities, memorized lines and blocking. I want you to remember the feeling of accomplishment you had that Sunday afternoon at the Harris. Take out that feeling whenever you need it.
I couldn’t find the right song for the end of our piece. I wanted something that related to our theme of finding your voice and asking to be heard. I wanted it to be uplifting, a little anthemic, but not too hokey, not too on the nose. I fell in love with the refrain in Chance the Rapper’s cover of the Arthur theme song “Wonderful Everyday.”
I’m gonna get by when the going get rough I’m gonna love life ’til I’m done growing up And when I go down I’mma go down swinging My eyes still smiling And my heart still singing
Here’s the secret no one tells you about growing up—it never really feels like you do. I think that’s a good thing. Approach with caution those who think they’re done growing up. There’s always something to learn, something to love about life. We can always ask the questions I heard you ask in our discussions, the questions you ask in your performance: Who am I in the world? How do people see me? Who do I want to be? I hope for you what I hope for myself: that you can love life till you’re done growing up and that you’ll keep growing (learning, listening, dreaming, evolving) till your life is done—a long, long time from now.
Have a beautiful summer, young artists.
I’ve tried my hand at a book review. It’s up on a really cool site, theislandreview.com, which I stumbled across when I was looking up something about an island, real or imagined—probably Martha’s Vineyard, Hawaii, Avalon or Neverland. The book I reviewed, Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness by Jennifer Tseng, was the perfect fit for the site, since it takes place on an unnamed island on the northern Atlantic seaboard of the U.S inspired by Martha’s Vineyard, an island dear to my own heart. Jennifer is a librarian and poet on Martha’s Vineyard. We met in college and stomped around Chicago together for a trimester, drinking espresso, eating samosas, reading feminist theory, writing poems and learning about gentrification and social justice. And thrifting!
My own book, which is undergoing yet another revision this spring, now begins with this passage: Continue reading Summer Reading, 2015
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Things are happening, friends. I can’t say just what yet; the chickens aren’t hatched—but they are pecking mightily. There have been some heady phone calls and emails and talk of big things to come. It’s been gratifying and exhilarating—and nerve-racking.
On that front, I’ve had two good bits of advice. I called my sister in a slight tizzy over the uncertainty of it all—the possibly big-exciting-it’s-about-time things still up in the air. Her counsel was to soak it in, enjoy the anticipation of the moment before. This particular moment before may not come again, she said, so take pleasure in it now. Continue reading Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.
— John Updike
I’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.
This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world. Continue reading Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ― Mary Oliver
I like having a February birthday. February needs something—it’s a rough month at this latitude—and Valentine’s Day just does not cut the mustard. Mardi Gras often falls in February which helps mitigate winter malaise. (In 2021 it falls on my birthday, which might be solid justification for a New Orleans trip in six years. Laissez les bon temps rouler, ya’ll.) But, anyway, I’m a fan of birthdays, in general, as opportunities for both merrymaking and taking stock.
As it happens, February is this blog’s birthday month as well. I didn’t plan it that way. It must just feel natural to me to start things in February. I came in just under the wire with my first post on February 28, 2012. It featured one Mr. Rocky Balboa, and it was basically a pep talk to myself. Continue reading Birthdays
Beware of the person of one book. –Thomas Aquinas
I fell in love with Jane because she was dressed for the first day of second grade in a blue and white sailor dress like a girl from one of my books. I remember a hat and gloves to boot, but I don’t quite trust that memory because I’m sure as soon as I saw the sailor dress I gave her a hat and gloves in my imagination. She had a British accent: her family had lived in England and Africa and on weekends her father dressed in white trousers and sweater and played cricket in the park, which took like ten hours.
Besides Jane, I was in love with books. Lustfully, extravagantly in love. Jane’s father called me a bluestocking. He said it meant a girl who liked to read. I liked the sound of it: bluestocking. It sounded whimsical to me, old fashioned and romantic, like Jane’s sailor dress (and hat and gloves). Continue reading because, books
Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.
I’m querying agents. This involves carefully crafting letters tailored to each individual agent on my list, which means researching what kind of work and which authors each one represents. My plan was to send out sixty queries before I let myself get too discouraged. I’m not sure why sixty. Somehow that number presented itself. Five dozen. I’m not even close to that yet, so it’s definitely too soon to despair. But the rejections have started to trickle in. They’re not rolling in—merely trickling. But the water is very cold.
I was feeling low last week. It was probably some holiday blues. Also I was immersed in researching Auschwitz for a study guide for The Passenger for the Lyric Opera. Also I had a behemoth of a migraine—which may have been in part a result of researching Auschwitz. And in the midst of all of that I got a very nice rejection from a fancy New York agent. My friend Lindsay pointed out that I should look on the bright side, which was that this agent used some lovely, glowing words to describe my manuscript—but I mostly felt bad that she said it wasn’t for her.
So Lindsay sent me a pep talk in the form of a link to a list of big time writers who got rejected before making it big, which of course led to further investigation on my part.
It seems Gertrude Stein submitted poems for over twenty years before one got published.
Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching by the editor of The Atlantic who had to eat his words when she ended up outselling Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James.
Rudyard Kipling received this note from The San Francisco Examiner in 1889: “I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald was advised by a shortsighted publisher, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers. It went on to win the Newbery Medal.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected a dozen times.
One publisher recommended that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (probably my favorite novel when I was twenty-two) be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
Not that I’m as brilliant as any of these authors, but it helps to think others have survived this particular roller-coaster.
In the words of Sylvia Plath, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
And Barbara Kingsolver:
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Just keep looking.