I’ve felt at times with some chagrin that I could have used a blueprint for how to live life as a writer. Earning an MFA in fiction, a new genre for me as a writer, feels like the right next step. The throughline in my meandering path has been stories—writing and performing my own, creating space for my students to tell theirs.
I’m very fond of islands. I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket off Cape Cod; Amelia, the southernmost Sea Island off the Florida coast, over which eight different flags have supposedly flown including French, Spanish, British, Mexican, Confederate, and U.S.; Whidbey in the Puget Sound where I ate myself silly on wild blackberries; Madeline, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior where our host said canoeists sometimes spot black bears out for a swim; and Ireland where I hitchhiked one rainy weekend in college.
I wrote a little about islands last summer when I reviewed my friend Jennifer Tseng’s novel Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness.
Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Henry David Thoreau
In a box somewhere I have a list I wrote at age thirteen of ways to make money. If memory serves, it included crafts I could make and sell, chores for which I could possibly get paid and babysitting for my neighbors. Babysitting’s the only one that provided any significant stream of income. In high school and beyond, I worked as a lifeguard, caterer, house painter and substitute teacher. But most of my adult life I’ve earned my living with some combination of teaching and waiting tables.
In the ‘90s I discovered the profession of teaching artist—someone who implements long-term residencies and short-term workshops in their art form in schools, jails, community centers and hospitals—and I’ve been doing it ever since. Last year I did residencies in Chicago, Evanston and Independence, Kansas, designed and led a handful of professional development workshops for teachers, directed the Chicago Public Schools All-City Theatre Ensemble and wrote educational materials for Lyric Opera Chicago’s student and general audiences. I also waited tables at two different restaurants. I got fired from the first by a sketchy owner, which led to an anxiety-ridden, touch-and-go September: no teaching work and no restaurant to fall back on. I’m still feeling the effects of a month of no income, though I did find another job—at a place where I work longer hours for less money. The whole thing left me demoralized and a teensy bit frantic—and wondering for the millionth time why I’m still waiting tables. Continue reading How to Do What You Love
Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths
In late August I said goodbye to a very fine cat. Duncan lived with me for seventeen years, in three different apartments. He enjoyed drinking water from the bathroom sink tap and sitting on the edge of the tub when I was taking a bath. On a handful of occasions he actually jumped in, and, instead of splashing immediately back out, walked high-legged and stiff through water up to his undercarriage, investigating the situation. He formed a grudging bond with my pit bull mix, Levi (RIP) and an even more grudging bond with Mingus, a bedraggled black kitten who joined our household three years ago.
Duncan was fluffy and sweet, even in his dotage when he purred less often and developed the habit of staring into space and vocalizing loudly. He had a very elegant set of whiskers and a distinguished countenance.
Five years ago, an essay I wrote won Glamour magazine’s “My Real Life Story” essay contest. Part of the prize package was a chat with a literary agent. That essay was the first I’d ever written outside of schoolwork; prior to that, I’d been a poet and then a playwright and monologuist. But when the agent asked me what I was working on, I told her I was writing a book.
Then I had to figure out what kind of book it was.
A memoir had crossed my mind; after all, the Glamour essay was a personal narrative. But that piece dealt with a painful chapter of my life; it was draining to write. I didn’t fancy the idea of spending months dredging up childhood hurts. So I opted for essay collection in lieu of memoir. My thought was that I would tackle ideas, something I’d done in my work for the stage. I’d investigate what mattered to me, things I had questions about or couldn’t entirely figure out—like friendship and fear and love. I’d write about those things and tell some stories from my life in which they played a part.
Last fall I finished The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, a collection of seventeen linked essays, and crafted a query letter. Out of thirty queries, I had five or six requests for the manuscript. Almost every agent who read it said something along the lines of, I love the writing but it feels like it wants to be a memoir.
I took another look and understood what they meant.
Through writing about the issues I’d struggled with, the questions I’d had, the discoveries I’d made over the years, I’d constructed a roundabout memoir—a looping, back and forth journey through my life.
So this spring, I set about remodeling The Saltwater Twin from a not-quite memoir into a memoir memoir. I rearranged and reconstructed chapters, cut one entirely, added connective tissue and arrived at something new, something I like. Definitely something that packs a bigger punch.
And—I found an agent!
I’m represented by Ellen Geiger at Frances Goldin Literary Agency. I really like Ellen, and I really like the agency. In one of our first conversations, Ellen told me to go online and find Frances Goldin’s Occupy Wall Street video.
Frances is eighty-seven in the clip, which is from 2011, and she’s trying to get a cop to arrest her. He refuses. She’d been arrested nine times for civil disobedience and was working toward a dozen. She passes out buttons that say “Tax the Rich.”
I hope I get to meet her.
One of the reasons I queried Ellen is because the agency represents Barbara Kingsolver and Dorothy Allison, both of whose work I love. In fact, though I’ve never met Barbara Kingsolver, her advice got me through the first round of rejections to my query letter (I wrote about that here):
“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.”
Ellen also represents the estate of poet Adrienne Rich. With all the undersea imagery of The Saltwater Twin, I thought often of Rich’s famous poem, “Diving into the Wreck” when I sat down to write. I almost used a few lines from it as the book’s epigraph:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
It goes without saying I’m over the moon at being in such august company!
On Ellen’s advice, I did one more round of revisions this summer. I sent the new manuscript to her this week. After Labor Day, we take the next step on the journey: finding a publisher. In Barbara Kingsolver’s words, we look for the right address.
It’s out of my hands for now. So, between daydreams about what’s next for The Saltwater Twin, I’ll be thrifting my back to school wardrobe, beginning the search for a new puppy, and oh yeah—starting work on a novel.
I mentioned this spring that I had an excerpt from The Saltwater Twin published in Hayden’s Ferry Review. It’s in Issue 56: The Chaos Issue, and it’s called “And Now, the Octopus.” It’s about faith—having it, losing it and sometimes finding it again. It’s also about octopuses.
Here’s where I wrote about writing it—way back in June 2012.
Hayden’s Ferry asked me to provide some contributor’s remarks for their blog, which you can read here. In them, I discuss my inspiration for the essay and what Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
And here, for your delectation, is an excerpt:
I was fourteen the summer my aunt and uncle got cable, expanding our formerly limited selection of afternoon entertainment. Moby Dick couldn’t hold a candle to MTV, or such classic films as The Pirate Movie, Grease 2 and Clash of the Titans. Every afternoon my sisters and cousins would crowd onto the sunset-orange, velour sofa bed in my aunt and uncle’s spare room and watch Clash of the Titans over and over, mesmerized by the cartoony violence, naked ladies and Harry Hamlin’s suntanned torso and pouty lips. Continue reading On Octopuses, Faith and Holy Curiosity (And Half Pint)
I’m typing this on the Peter Pan bus, en route to Logan Airport 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.
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!