A Positive Note

I love the Freelance Union. I love what they do, and I particularly love the idea of the Quiet Revolution. This is how I think we should all live our lives.

Today’s twitter question, which was crafted just to start conversation, deserves a little more commentary than my twitter feed would possibly allow.

“How do you start your freelance project on a positive note?”

I don’t. I go to this blog and bitch and moan. I complain about the fact that my equations are green (why?) and that my author can’t stop using the word “unique.” I whine that I have to edit instead of taking my dog on long walks in the fleeting spring weather. I complain that I’m too lazy to cook for myself even though I work no more than 15 feet from a working kitchen.

But then, I go back to my work, rejuvenated and refreshed. It’s very cathartic. I guess that’s a positive note, right?

What about you? Are you all sunshine and light?

Doorknobs and editing

You may have seen this flittering around on Facebook, but I’ll add one of the (many) relevant sections.

Normal people have a sort of mental secretary that takes the 99% of irrelevant crap that crosses their mind, and simply deletes it before they become consciously aware of it. As such, their mental workspace is like a huge clean whiteboard, ready to hold and organize useful information.

ADHD people… have no such luxury. Every single thing that comes in the front door gets written directly on the whiteboard in bold, underlined red letters, no matter what it is, and no matter what has to be erased in order for it to fit.

As such, if we’re in the middle of some particularly important mental task, and our eye should happen to light upon… a doorknob, for instance, it’s like someone burst into the room, clad in pink feathers and heralded by trumpets, screaming HEY LOOK EVERYONE, IT’S A DOORKNOB! LOOK AT IT! LOOK! IT OPENS THE DOOR IF YOU TURN IT! ISN’T THAT NEAT? I WONDER HOW THAT ACTUALLY WORKS DO YOU SUPPOSE THERE’S A CAM OR WHAT? MAYBE ITS SOME KIND OF SPRING WINCH AFFAIR ALTHOUGH THAT SEEMS KIND OF UNWORKABLE.

There are many reasons that the whole post struck me. I recognized the way, when I’m tutoring writing, I have to wrench myself away from irrelevant tangents inspired by the student’s work. I recognize the way I couldn’t take notes in college. But it turns out that this scattershot approach can be effective in editing.

Science journals have strict rules about how to set various things. So, when I see “2 mm apart” I have to think about everything I know about those words/numbers. I have to consider whether 2 should be written out (not when it’s accompanied by a unit of measurement), whether mm should be written out (not when accompanied by a number), and whether it should be hyphenated (no). This is liberating for the ADD brain because I’m going to be thinking about the associations I have with each word/number anyway.

One of the things I’ve been trying to do over the past few months is to nail down the things in my brain that are ADD. It’s hard to separate ADD, anxiety, and depression because they are all interrelated. The clinical definitions don’t help, because they are generalized. And try to separate that from everything else in your brain and you have a big stinking mess. But this picture of what this person’s interior worldview captivates me. I know when I get like that. I know why I come home and DP has left bread in the toaster oven all day. This is what I need to remember, to embrace or guard against depending on the situation.

Averil asked a variation of this question months ago, but what does the interior of your brain look like?

Getting a Ph.D.

Cougar and I were talking about academia the other day and she asked me whether I wanted to get a Ph.D.

“Fuck, no,” was my considered response. But it was a fair question. I work on the outskirts of academia and have entered the adjuncting class. It’s hard to get a teaching job or respect in an academic setting if you don’t have a Ph.D. And I’ve edited some of those fuckers and I can safely say that the level of writing is within my grasp. (The level of writing is in my 17-year-old niece’s grasp too, but then she’s also a pretty good writer. Takes after her auntie.)

At one time I considered very briefly getting one as I saw my writing project opening up into a big huge mess of things I didn’t know. How would I find the time to learn all I needed to to write the book I wanted to write? But I knew better.

Writers are often like oil and water to Ph.D. programs. Would you rather study how a book works or write one yourself? For me it’s no contest. Or as Jim Harrison (?) said, I’m the bird, not the ornithologist.

One of DP’s favorite stories is the time he was chatting up some woman online (before he met yours truly, of course). Now DP is one of those people who retains everything he reads. He was channeled into gifted programs when he was a wee lad. In short, he’s pretty fucking smart.

“So, where did you get your Ph.D.?” the online woman asked after DP said something about his teaching job.

“I have an MFA in fiction.”

“Oh, that’s surprising,” the hussy said. “You’re too smart to be a writer.” He had a few choice words for her, and he found me a couple months later, so it all worked out for the best. But can you imagine? This woman hussy was studying literature.

But I’ve been thinking recently that The Fucker is my Ph.D. I do have an MFA, and I did put together a poetry manuscript. But it didn’t feel like I was assembling a book the way writing The Fucker does. It was just a collection of poems. Over time, the poetry manuscript has become a book, and I’ve learned a ton from writing the poems within it. But I’ve learned more from the memoir because it’s more difficult for me.

What do you have a Ph.D. in?


The Writing Process Blog Tour

Because I’m all anonymous and shit, I can’t tell you how I know Georgia Clark, but suffice it to say that when I heard her read the first chapter from Parched, the whole room was itchy and impatient to get their hands on the book, which wasn’t going to be out for a couple years. You, my friends, do not have to wait that long. She has invited me to do a blog tour (or she’s doing a blog tour, I dunno something about chain letters and my mom and terrible consequences, but since I don’t have to worry about that anymore, I’ve thrown caution to the wind) about the writing process.

What are you working on?

I’m writing a memoir. I hate saying that because memoirists are seen as self-obsessed. But have you met a writer? They’re/we’re all just clawing at our lives and experiences so hard just to get something to write about that I understand how we might come across as self-centered. I’ve been writing this blog just slightly longer than I’ve been writing the memoir, and it’s given me the strength to realize that, as a poet, I can write to the right edge of the page.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m anonymous, mate, what’s with all these questions? [Georgia is from Australia so I can use fancy Commonwealth terminology when responding to her questions.] The memoir (or as we call it around here, the fucker) is not just a memoir about losing my father. It’s also about understanding science as a nonscientist. I had lost sight of the bigger question, but it’s back. Thank god. I hated the previous version. (Whoa, that’s a lot more frank about my book than I usually am in these here anonymous parts.) So it’s not about grief, it’s not about childhood, it’s not about science, it’s about all of these things.

Why do you write what you do?

I would like to be a science writer and write arty slim volumes about [subject redacted] but I don’t understand this shit, I can’t focus long enough to get real research done, and I can’t write about it when I do, by some miracle, understand something. So I bounce around and include a bit of everything. I justify it by reading a bunch of Nick Flynn and calling myself a poet.

Short answer: because I can’t write about anything else.

How does your writing process work?

Guilt and procrastination sprinkled with a liberal lack of planning. I am a freelance copyeditor, so the only way I can justify blowing off an afternoon of work is to write. Or, if I’m not writing, I get whiny and bored with life. About the time my partner threatens to kill me, I decide to go write. Beats divorce, which is expensive and sad, or so I’m told. I should probably wash dishes/dust/weed my garden but I don’t want to. So I write. There was a long stretch in my life where the only thing that was going well was the writing. I try to honor the writing because of that. And because I love it. And because my life is infinitely less interesting without it.

I get Freedom (aka the best $10 I’ve ever spent, also introduced to me by the very same Georgia Clark), kick myself offline, and try to write as often as I think I can get away with it. I am not a person who plans ahead. I grab the time and I go. I don’t know what I’m writing about until I do it. I struggle with planning and I hate it. So I just write and revise, write and revise. This sounds messy, and it is. But I rely on ambition, drive, melodrama, and the ribbing of my writing friends to get through. And so far it is all keeping me afloat.

Now, my friends, I am passing this writing-process blog-tour baton to Sarah W., the killer of my work ethic (hurry up and finish your novel, I’m running out of shit to read); Lyra, author of the best novel you haven’t read yet but will; and Averil, whose book was so beautiful and scary I couldn’t put it down. Your turn.

Hitting Send

I didn’t get an assignment from one of my students. I sent her an email reminder, and she finally confessed that it was done but she was having trouble hitting send. I don’t usually have that problem. Usually I’m whorish about my work; I’ll send it out to anyone.

One of my friends tells me this is because I’m a poet. According to her, poets share their work and fiction writers keep their work close to their chests. Close to their chests. Huh. I’ve heard that phrase, but am not really sure what it means.

I might have finished my (don’t laugh) tenth draft. (I think my soul just died a little writing “tenth.”) Moving on. I have a willing victim reader. But I can’t hit send.

“There’s so much more I need to explain!” I wailed.

“Let me be the judge of that,” said my victim reader.

On the one hand, I do have to go through and change all my “teh”s to “the,” but that’s the easy shit. I have to go through and address all the notes to myself in brackets. I like to yell myself in text. [FIX THIS] or [BARF] or “He used to tell me about XXXX.”

But I know that’s not really the problem. (Although explaining XXXX is going to be hard.) The problem is that section 4 scares me. I want to make it good. I want victim reader who now stands for all readers to love it, to learn something new, to see the world a different way. You guys support me. You cheer me along. You assure me that I’m going to finish The Fucker and so on. But that’s just talk. (Much appreciated talk.) The book is the real thing.

Are you whorish about your work?

Braving the Fire

I just finished Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss by Jessica Handler. I wasn’t sure whether I’d like it or not. In general I shy away from books about grieving, and although I have read a shit-ton of books about writing, I do that less the longer I write.

The first thing the book made me want to do was read Invisible Sisters, which is the author’s own grief memoir. She quotes a number of memoirs I know and love, and so when she referred to a memoir I haven’t read, I wrote it down.

I knew a lot of what she wrote about already. I learned it mostly from having wrestled with the fucker for the past four years. Some of it I learned in grad school and immediately after while struggling to figure out how to write anything. Write about the hard stuff, you don’t have to show it to anyone. Don’t shy away from the bad, the difficult, the taboo, the shit that makes you look like a total ass. Don’t be afraid to be funny. (Don’t worry, I never have the last problem.)

But then there were the things she reminded me. There is no resolution in life. But there does have to be an end to your book. What is the big picture? I’ve been struggling with the arc, but I think I’ve found it. I’m not writing a grief memoir, exactly, but a grief memoir that leads to another, bigger question. I like that. I feel like it is something people will read. At least that’s what I feel on good days.

She also addresses the whole take care of yourself as you write, and it’s okay to cry and be sad. She also said that, according to some memoirists, writing becomes a way to externalize the grief. You still feel it, but it gets put somewhere else. And I think about a conversation I had with a poet-acquaintance.

“You should come talk to my class!” she said after I told her about the Fucker.

“Sure,” I said.

“Oh, but would you be okay? I mean, what with your mom and all.” It wasn’t a problem, I told her. I can’t make it through mother’s day intact or listen to a Mozart piano concerto without crying, but I can talk about the process of grieving and writing about grief until the end of days. Dry eyes.

“The students could ask me anything,” I said. “It would be OK.”

When my father was dying, two of my sisters wrote poems to each other every day. Neither of them were poets. I was. They wanted me to participate. No way. I wasn’t writing out grief exactly how I was feeling it, I was shaping the grief into something else. A poem has to be a complete little world. There was nothing wrong with the poems they were writing, they just weren’t crafted poems. They were occasional. I wanted my poems to be like my friend’s vase: thick slabbed pottery, standing on its own on my mantle, slanting slightly, but on purpose; it does not fall over.

That is the process that inures you to talking about grief.

Do you read books about writing?

And here is one of my favorite songs about grief (or anything) by one of my very favorite singers. “And the hardest part is knowing you’ll survive.” We’re glad you did. Happy Birthday, Emmylou! xo

Too much criticism

Last night one of my friends (who is a brilliant academic) asked DP and me to critique her poem. DP and I both have MFAs, this means we came out of a workshop system. We are used to critiquing other people’s work; we are so used to it, in fact, that we do it for a living.

“You need to put more of yourself in there,” we said.

“It doesn’t have to be you personally,” I added. “It’s a poem, you can lie. You just need to make it more concrete.”

“I have no idea how you guys do this shit all the time,” my friend responded. She has a background in philosophy and sociology. For her the abstract is concrete. For me, the abstract makes me want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.

And I’m not sure she understood what we were getting at. The abstract works best when it is intertwined with the personal. The personal is political. Explain this ten different ways. DP and I agreed on the line we liked best, but we liked it in the context of the lived experience not just the words on the page.

And by the end, I think we talked to much. We gave her too much criticism, forgot that she was a beginner in creative writing because she is so advanced in other spheres.

Do you know when to stop?