Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dear writing, it's not you, it's me


Writing has been a challenge these days. 

OK. Well. That's not quite true. Writing has always been a challenge. But one that I'd always welcomed. 

But I have not welcomed the challenge recently. Recently, the ideas have been there but the will has not. The will has been straggling behind saying things like, "but I don't wanna" and "you can't make me" and "Shouldn't we just watch another episode of 'Big Love'"? and  "Fuck it. Let's watch another episode of 'Big Love."

Pardon my language.

Actually, don't. That was an appropriately used fuck it.

I never meant for my hobby to become something I'd resent and question. It was supposed to be fun. Something I looked forward to and that was only mine.

Only suddenly, it feels like a folly. This needy, self-serving monster that's always tapping my shoulder and asking for another snack. Always asking for a little extra something. A little bit more of my time and energy. It never lays off the guilt trip. Never stops bossing me around.

Writing didn't feel so much like a need for affirmation and approval and reassurance and ego until I set out looking for someone (i.e. an agent) to affirm, approve, reassure and stroke my ego. 

It was fun. And when it wasn't fun, it was cleansing. A place to sort out messes and make sense of senseless things (or at least point out the senselessness). And say the things I wanted to say without worrying about whether someone else would ever pay to read it. 

And that's the real problem, right there. I suppose that's the problem with all creative endeavors. That's why artists should be hermits rather than brands. 

Not that I'm an artist. Or a brand for that matter. 

If I were to pick a label from the list it would just be "writer" at its most basic "it-puts-the-words-on-its-page" level ("Silence of the Lambs" anyone? Anyone? Clarice? Anyone?).

So, a week or two ago, it was a long day and I had this idea for a poem. I haven't written a poem in years. In fact, I had to send a note to a friend who is an actual poet to make sure I knew what even qualified as poetry anymore. I've never been one for rhyming in any way other than obnoxiously). Based on her response (pretty much anything that is broken up in stanzas or some such can be a poem these days) I decided my poem qualified as a poem by modern standards (though maybe not by Emily Dickinson's). 

Here's my attempt to make up with writing*. 

"Cry Poem" (for lack of a better name)

I cry at everything these days.
Everything that’s not my inability to fold the fitted sheets.
Or the diaspora of toys
Always rehoming themselves underfoot.
Or the half-eaten yogurt and uneaten broccoli.
The tiny battles with tiny people.
These things are just the noise of the interstate in my front yard.
The whirling tires I never notice anymore anyway.

Yesterday, my small daughter put on my grandmother’s small gloves.
They fit her, except for the finger tips
Which were empty.
But she’s growing all day
and soon her hands will be my grandmother’s.
And by then she won’t be Cinderella waltzing around the oak tree.
And she won’t notice the magic dust that glitters on sunny days.
And for this I cry and cry.

I'm aware now that the world is immense.
An insignificant universe of ugliness
I never noticed until my small daughters.
The reckless callousness and carelessness we live by
chases me into a fort on the couch
that my small daughters made for me with a blanket
after wiping away my tears.
We should stay here forever, I tell them. Just them and me.

Because I cry at everything.
Save for all the nothing things.
I wonder if I should cap my frayed live wire nerves.
With medication.
And join a world that’s just fine.
Room temperature tap water on a hot day.
That neurological equilibrium
That feels slightly less like living.

But, I think, this is just motherhood.
Perpetually molting my thickest skin
The remaining layers thinner and thinner. Paper then tissue.
There’s no shield anymore from the little Cinderella
And her smaller sister eating a sundae with such joy,
For a moment, I remember the world before this world.
And this makes my nose red and my eyes glass.
My flickering heart is always on display now.

I dwell in the littlest things now.
Like finding a young bird, floating in the plastic pool
under the oak tree my small daughter waltzed around.
I buried the bird in the part of the yard we don’t ever tend to.
She’s back there under a short cairn
and the purple iris that were my grandmother’s favorite
and the rest of the futility I feel
and some of those tears I cry these days.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Wannabe novelist ISO ambivalence and full-body foot skin

Photo courtesy of Ann Toal/Flickr
Back in January I wrote about how prepared for rejection I was. I've had three decades worth of experience to draw from. Rejection of all flora and fauna. A veritable ecosystem of "I like you, buts" and "I'm sorry to inform yous" and "Regretfullies" and "Unfortunatelies." (I never actually read beyond those first words, because there's no point, really. Rarely has the word "Unfortunately" been followed by "we've decided to turn down all the other applications/submissions because you are by far the most awesome applicant/submitter we have ever come across in the history of our organization and we want to hire/date/represent you." That's like (to reference "The 40-year-old Virgin") tearing up the hardwood to see if there's carpet underneath. It's never the case.)). 

Man that was a long aside. With double parentheses even! To think nobody would want to represent a writer with such a proclivity for digression! Who doesn't want to read pages and pages of meaningless asides before anything actually happens in the story? 

Where was I?

So, back in January, I wrote about how prepared for rejection I was. It was a good thing I was prepared, because shortly after that, I received word that short stories I'd submitted to two literary competitions were rejected. 

No big deal, I told myself (after I finished secretly sobbing in the car while listening to Florence + and Machine) because it stands to reason I can't be rejected forever. All this short-term rejection will eventually lead to long-term success, right? Didn't someone once say that the road to getting published was paved with the tears of a thousand wannabe novelists? 

Maybe that's just what I told myself after yet another ugly cry.

Armed with my most recent rejection and a weird combination of blind optimism masked by too-cool-for-school cynicism, I submitted my manuscript to five agents in March.

And then a week later, one of those five agents wrote back and asked for the first chapter. And then a week after that, that same agent wrote back and asked for the entire manuscript, which I sent. 

I didn't sleep much that night. And didn't sleep all that well for many nights after. During the day I obsessed about whether that agent was reading my manuscript and what they thought about it and when I'd hear back from them and  whether they'd want to represent it. My stomach felt like that forest in Mexico where all the Monarch butterflies migrate. The girls would try to have conversations with me and their words would flutter about, never actually landing in my ears because I was off fantasizing about the mere possibility of acceptance.

When Brad tried to get excited on my behalf, I told him it probably wasn't going to happen. And he'd say something like, "It only takes one person to read it and like it" and then I'd say "Well, I'm supposed to be turned down, like a billion times first, and anyway, probably nobody is going to like it ever because it's horrible and lame and I should probably just focus my efforts on removing all those hairy, sticky spots on the kitchen floor." And then he'd roll his eyes at me and then I'd say, "I just don't want to get my hopes up."

But in secret, my hopes were up. Just, floating on up into the stratosphere like an escaped birthday balloon.

I started designing the cover art in my head. Writing the acknowledgments. Picturing its placement on the bookstore shelf.

You know, generally getting way ahead of myself. 

But then I didn't hear anything back. For weeks and weeks and weeks. It had been a month and a half since I sent out my initial round of queries and my email inbox was nothing but a wasteland of work-related emails and coupons from Gymboree and Books-a-Million. Not even any "thanks, but no thanks" or "unfortunatlies" or "regrettablies" or "you should probably give up on your childhood dream and pursue more practical arts, like dish scrubbery or fitted-sheet folding."

And then, last week, I heard back from the agent (well, the agent's assistant anyway):

"Thank you for sending the additional material. Unfortunately, OUT OF THE WOODS is not quite what [AGENT's NAME] is looking for. Therefore, she must regretfully decline consideration at this point.

We wish you all the best with this and future projects. Thanks again for the opportunity to review your work."


As it turns out, it doesn't matter how much you've been rejected in the past. It still really, really sucks when it happens again.

"They" (i.e. those who have been through this process before) say that when you're querying, you're supposed to just keep on writing. And even though I have plenty of story ideas, these days I dread writing.

And that's the most disheartening part about this whole thing. It's not necessarily the rejection. It's the loss of motivation that accompanies it. The feeling of futility. It makes me want to give up on writing. All the noise and great expectations and disappointment are sucking the joy out of this thing that I love to do. Amy Poehler even warned me about this very thing (OK, not me personally. It was in her book. But it felt like she was speaking directly to me): 

"Ambivalence is key. You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look."

I know, I know, as a wannabe novelist/first-time querier, I should have thicker skin. Like, right now it's wet phyllo dough when it really needs to be tough and leathery, kinda like the skin on the bottom of my feet. I'm pretty sure I could walk over a miles-worth of Legos and dried up bits of Play-Doh, barefoot without any pain. That's how tough my foot skin is (attractive I know, especially now that it's sandal season). 

It was foolish to think so early on I'd find my golden ticket. I'm no Charlie Bucket. I won't happen upon a few candy bars and end up with a published novel. No, I'm Veruca Salt in this scenario going through thousands and thousands of candy bars in search of The One. 

Only in this scenario, literary agents are candy bars. And I don't want any omniscient squirrels.

I think the solution is, more chocolate. And more Florence + The Machine.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Taking the fingers out of my ears

Photo courtesy of John Brucato/Flickr

A year or two ago my mom and I took the girls to the National Aquarium in Baltimore for the day. As I'm apt to do when driving in cities, I got turned around when leaving the parking garage and ended up missing my exit for the interstate and driving through an unfamiliar neighborhood.


"This doesn't look like an area I'd want to spend too much time in," Mom said from the passenger seat, her democratic way of suggesting we'd ended up in a bad part of town and maybe we should turn around. 


Like, immediately.


To my eyes (raised in the lush green fairytale of the Washington, D.C. suburbs) the area looked bleak. Asphalt, meets concrete, meets stark public housing. And all in the oppressive stone shadow of the monolithic Baltimore Detention Center. 


No, it wasn't a place I'd want to spend a whole lot of time in either. And I didn't have to. A few minutes later I found the freeway entrance and we raced back home to York. 


When you are born looking like I do – like my children do – and raised where we have been with all it's comfort, conveniences and opportunities, that time you went to the projects ends up being a minor footnote to a pleasant day spent looking at fish rather than the defining backdrop of your entire life.


I write this and immediately feel ugly, elitist and judgmental. 


I'd roll my eyes at me, too, as I rolled up my car windows.


I mean, of course the projects aren't synonymous with Disney Land. Everyone knows that, right? But to the people who live there, that's home. 


Even I get defensive when people ask me why I'd want to live in York. This rusty old industrial city in the armpit of Pennsylvania. But it's home. And it grows on you. And you take pride in your home. No matter how much it smells like rotten sauerkraut on the dank days the winds blow in from the paper mill in Spring Grove. No matter how strange it is that people like to spend a week in June sitting along  the highway on lawn chairs watching cars drive by. 

It might not be pretty or perfect. It has plenty of problems. But it's my home. My community. I can complain about it all I want, but as soon as an outsider starts commenting on its warts they'll get an earful.


I imagine it's like that for the residents of Baltimore – even for the residents of the most neglected areas of Baltimore. Tired of those Inner Harbor-goers judging their city.



***

I've started (and stopped) writing about race in America a dozen times in the past year. I didn't want to write anything because I didn't want to write anything controversial. Didn't want to write anything trite. Didn't want to write anything that was ignorant. Didn't want to write anything offensive. Didn't want to oversimplify or underestimate. I didn't want to be yet another well-meaning white person patting myself on the back for trying to understand centuries of subtle and not-so-subtle segregation and racism. 


This isn't my fight. But it keeps tapping me on the shoulder. 


This quote from Desmond Tutu showed up on my Facebook feed the other day:


"If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality."


I am not neutral.  


"I want to read what a white, middle class, suburban housewife has to say about racial discord in American cities," said no one ever. I will spare you of any long-winded and potentially misguided musings of my own. 


Instead, I'll point you to compelling stories, books and articles I've come across in the past year that have given me some clarity and a deeper understanding of why black Americans feel the need to remind the rest of us that black lives matter.  


And why they are so frustrated and furious.


They've of forced me out of indifference. Made me take take out the fingers I'd put in my ears to mute other people's problems. 

Here's the roundup:


"The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" by Michelle Alexander: Alexander is a legal scholar who argues that the racial caste system we thought was dissolved by the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s, has been replaced by the systemic mass incarceration of African American men via the War on Drugs. The book is well-researched, well-argued, sobering and a must-read for anyone who wants to straddle the line. It's not a question of if our criminal justice system is broken. The question is how can we fix it. And I won't lie, it's a depressing read. When I finished it, my faith in the goodness of people and government was rather low; not to mention my optimism that things could change. But I suppose the first step to change is acknowledging that change needs to be made. York Attorney Dawn Cutaia, who frequently writes about issues of race, offered a good overview of the book here. While you're at it, check out Dawn's latest column about Baltimore here.


This American Life regularly offers fresh perspectives on all walks of life in our country. The two-part show they did about Chicago's Harper High School, which has been plagued by gun violence, left me crying in the gym. House Rules shares stories behind the fair housing laws and Is This Working? looks at how schools deal with discipling students. Maybe these topics seem disconnected, but listen to them and you'll find a common thread.




The Nov. 12, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated featured of photo spread of the annual Angola Prison Rodeo, in which (mostly) black inmates ride the bulls for the entertainment of a (mostly) white audience. I was reading "The New Jim Crow" at the time, which made it all the more upsetting.

This article from Salon on charter schools which highlights fraud, financial mismanagement and failure in the charter schools that are replacing struggling public schools in U.S. cities. 


"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot tells the story about how the  a poor, black tobacco farmer's cells (taken without her knowledge) came to be one of the most important tools of modern medicine used for developing the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. Despite her contributions to medicine, neither Henrietta nor her family (who can't afford health care themselves) were ever compensated – even though her cells have been bought and sold by the billions. Henrietta lived in Baltimore and was treated at Hopkins. It's a good peek at the city then and now.  (You can listen to a short version of this story on RadioLab)


"The Known World" by Edward P. Jones is a novel about a black farmer living in antebellum Virginia, whose mentor – a wealthy, white plantation owner – eventually inspires him to own slaves of his own. The story is complex and haunting and the writing is gorgeous. 


And these essays:


From Jezebel: I don't know what to do with good white people


From SalonDear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now

From the York Daily Record: Baltimore Rioting – The Language of the Unheard:  "The lesson here is that the unheard resort to violence because it is the language that the powers-that-be seem to understand. Look at it from their perspective: They are ignored. The plight of their neighborhoods, their schools, their institutions are ignored. Until they take to the streets and destroy their neighborhood. Then, people who can make a difference at least pretend to listen. The riots in Baltimore had little, if anything to do with the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. They had more to do with hopelessness."

York attorney Dawn Cutaia has written several interesting oped pieces for the York Daily Record in the past year or so. Check some of them out here.


Note, I'm not suggesting that any one of these pieces tells the entire story of this issue. Obviously, there are many, many voices and many, many perspectives and plenty of other pieces that examine race in America – such an enormous and immensely complicated topic. Like I said, these are just a few of the things I've come across recently that have stuck with me.


----

P.S. Here are some additional things to check out courtesy of friends on Facebook: 

From Nickie: I agree with many of the reading recommendations, especially the Harper High series. I will add two reading suggestions on this topic. Sarah Smarsh's article on dental care: http://aeon.co/.../the-shame-of-poor-teeth-in-a-rich.../... And this is a MUST-READ book on education and upward mobility: http://mobile.nytimes.com/.../the-short-and-tragic-life...

From Mrs. Gray was thinking today, that as a society we do a great job of the hear no bad news, see no bad news, speak no bad news. We roll along on our conveyor belt of seeming prosperity with our blindfolds on. And when our underfunded public institutions, like schools and police forces don't work magic, we focus our concern there, rather than on the underlying chasm of inequality. ... And may I add to the List the TAL Episode Three Miles http://www.thisamericanlife.org/.../550/three-miles...

From ChrisI wish more outlets could take NPR's lead and do the kind of sustained reporting they have been putting together on these topics in recent years. ... Curious if you've read/considered last summer's piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates and how it might fit into this conversation/education ... http://www.theatlantic.com/.../the-case-for.../361631/

More from NickieI second Christopher! Ta-Nehisi Coates is required reading. Last year's Propublica series on school segregation is terrific, too. http://www.ewa.org/first-prize/nikole-hannah-jonespropublica

From PatI'm assuming I missed a mention of THe Corner. If not, it's a brilliant read. 
http://www.amazon.com/The-Corner-Year-Inner.../dp/0767900316
Also, MLK's "Why We Can't Wait"
And Buzz Bissinger's "A Prayer For The City" are worthwhile reads on several levels.