I’m excited to be heading east tomorrow for the Cuttyhunk Island Writers’ Residency. But this morning, I’m excited to share an essay I wrote on The Rumpus. It’s about friendship, Facebook, loneliness and nostalgia. Have a look if you’re so inclined.
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
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
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
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.”
I’m thinking of adding an appendix to The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures. I enjoy the idea of supplementary material: glosses, annotations, illustrations, maps, footnotes. This appendix would list the mythical creatures that appear throughout the book.
The title of the collection comes from a story I told myself when I was eight, about a neighbor who drowned—a girl my age. The myth and accompanying undersea world I constructed for her gave me a way to escape the family in which I was submerged: Continue reading mythical creatures
That’s a quote from Coco Chanel that I used last week to kick off a theater/social studies residency with eighth graders in Evanston. We’re exploring the 1920s and ‘30s through theater and creative writing. The first week we looked at changing images and roles for women in the 1920s; then, the students investigated their own relationship to fashion by writing about an article of clothing that was significant to them in some way. The quote sparked a discussion about clothing and culture and the connections between the two, both in the 1920s and today. (Also, 1920s slang is the bees’ knees.)
As an eighth grader myself, I was fond of quotations and tended to season my writing liberally with them—drawing from top 40 songs as well as my mother’s trusty Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which is apparently the longest-lived and most widely distributed collection of quotes there is. Its first publication was in 1855. (Side note: when I was in eighth grade, one couldn’t call a quotation a quote without risking the wrath of one’s English teacher. Quote was the verb, quotation the noun. Now, apparently one can although it’s considered informal usage.)
These days I feel like we’re inundated with pseudo-meaningful quotes photoshopped in every font imaginable onto pictures of sunsets or snowboarders. On coffee mugs. Reusable shopping bags. The internet is rife with sites devoted to cataloguing quotes on every subject under the sun. There’s even a primer on how to come up with a good quote of your own that offers up these helpful tips: Continue reading Quotes!
I can write about years in a paragraph, but the years took years to pass. –Dorothy Allison
You may have noticed I’ve been absent a minute. That’s because I really wanted the next time I posted to be able to say—
Pop the bubbly, kids, I’ve finished my manuscript!
The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures is ready for the next stage in its journey to a bookshelves, beach bags and bedside tables. Next steps are to hear back from a small cadre of readers who’ve generously offered to give me their impressions and then letters letters letters to agents. Though I haven’t printed the manuscript in its entirety, I’ve been doing the screen equivalent of picking it up and hefting it in my hands by opening the document and scrolling through. It’s clocking in at seventeen chapters, three hundred eighty four pages.
I just read Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. She describes standing on her first novel the day she finished the manuscript to see how much taller it made her. I do feel taller. Very important allies and friends Jordan “Pittsburgh Road Trip” LaSalle and Lindsay “Self-appointed Biggest Fan” Porter helped me celebrate with an enormous pasta dinner.