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I finished the PEN Mark program a couple of weeks ago. I’m one of those people who needs time and space to process intense experiences and I’m still too up close and personal with this one to be able to speak comprehensively about it. I wrote my final blog post for them last week. You can read it here, or you can just listen to this Blackfield cover and you’ll get the gist.

 

I blogged at PEN today about my sordid childhood reading list. You can read it here. It got me thinking about the literary caste system, which I didn’t even know existed until I started writing. It’s kind of fucking me up.

When I was a kid, I read what I could get my hands on. Sometimes it was relatively highbrow (Look Homeward, Angel, for example, when I was wayyy too young to be reading it), sometimes not (book I can no longer remember the name of that featured a girl giving a blowjob in every single chapter, ditto). Honestly? They were pretty much indistinguishable to me at the time. My only requirement was a deep well of elsewhere to fall into.

I picked books in the library by wandering the stacks of fiction and pulling titles that appealed to me. I’d crouch down right there in the musty aisles and read until my legs got sore or I got bored, whichever came first. If I read long enough to need to stand up and stretch, I’d check the book out. I was only allowed ten at a time, so I chose carefully.

When I started writing in 2006, I had a lot of makeup reading to do. The recommendations poured in like rainwater. Stacks of partially read books accumulated on my bedside table and spilled over into piles on the floor. I started to feel guilty about not being able to get through some literary darlings. I bought and gave away Housekeeping several times. Ditto The Corrections and Infinite Jest. For the first time in my life, reading started to feel like a chore.

Concurrently, I was fortunate enough to attend a couple of prestigious residencies.

“Oh, you write memoir,” the PhD poet said one night at dinner. “That’s…[glacial pause]…interesting.”

A similar story is better told here. It’s endemic.  

And another writer acquaintance told me the story of a lout at a fancy colony we’ve both attended who cocked a eyebrow and said, in that voice, when he heard she writes YA, “oh, are there vampires in it?” Bitch, please. I can’t out her here, it’s not my story to tell, but believe me, her book is stone fucking brilliant and his is…well, thus far his is unpublished. And I’m not unhappy about that.

I’m all over the place today, but my point is that there are all kinds of great books in the world. I read everything. Don’t you?

The silver lining in meeting people who openly display their disdain for genre writing is that it makes it easy to choose a different seat when I next find myself in a room with them. Life’s too fucking short. Also, the conversation at the Untouchables table is SO much more interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, I know some amazing highbrow writers who are earthy and funny and kind and real. My litmus test occurs when I say I haven’t read [insert any of the numerous classics from the pantheon here]. If there’s a slight nostril flare or a raised eyebrow, they’re dead to me. The real literary gods light up like I just gave them a present.

“You haven’t?” they say, eyes gleaming. “Oh, you’ve got such a treat in store.”

Those are my people.

A Better Version Of Me

I was going to post a video of Fiona Apple singing “Better Version Of Me,” but I found a live version of “Extraordinary Machine” that was so spectacular I wanted to share it instead. They’re both about dealing with adversity, so I felt like I was covered. And she’s so fucking brilliant. (I, on the other hand, am not, because I couldn’t even fucking figure out how to embed a video, and I finally gave up. It’s here.)

Over here on the PEN blog, I’m talking about Google self-diagnosis, perfectionism, and my ongoing quest to drag my fucking book across the finish line. And there’s a great Bukowski video, because they’re pros over there. They also get really excited about comments, and I’d love to hear how you transcend your sabotage-y impulses. If you have any. Hahahahaha, I can’t even say that with a straight face.

There Is No There There

 

 

I went to a fancy writer’s salon last week. I brought a shitload of wine and cheese and I spent an hour helping set up beforehand and I still felt like a fucking imposter.

Someone got shitfaced and sang Joe Walsh into a microphone. A woman asked me if writing my blog was fun. I was supposed to have dinner with a writer I deeply admire, but the night slipped away and it didn’t happen. There was a long conversation where several writer women professed to have big, thick writing cocks. I’m guessing at least one of them didn’t remember it the next day.

In quasi-related news, I had an email exchange with a young writer about fellowships and writer’s block and what can really fuck us up and I wrote about it here. It wasn’t fun.

Jump

 

I’m talking about the difference between getting pushed off a cliff and choosing to jump over on the PEN Center USA blog.

Unlike my misanthropic and control-freaky need to keep comments locked up tighter than a [insert inappropriate religious/virginal/vaginal slur here], they love the discourse over there, so pop on over and share your thoughts on getting to the finish line on a project or whatever.

I’m talking about applying to writer’s colonies over on the PEN Center USA blog today. I’d love it if my writer peeps would pop over and tell their own application/residency stories in the comments section. Go here and tell me a story. Good or bad. Because misery loves company, and, alternatively, I could also use a shot of good news.

I Want To Be Sedated

 

I’m talking about my ugly defense mechanisms and my ongoing struggle with writing over at the PEN USA Mark blog. There’s also a great interview with the Writer Whisperer here.

I’ve been having a bunch of stupid, stress-related health stuff lately, including a headache that I’ve literally had for three weeks. Life goes on, but I haven’t had the energy to muster up a blog post for a while, plus all I really want to do is complain about my aches, pains, and resentments. If you’re going to sit through that, you should probably just call [insert your most annoying relative here] and keep it in the family.

I’ve had a couple of PEN blog posts since I last posted here; if you’re interested, you can read them here, and here.

And I was interviewed by Meredith Resnick over at The Writer’s Inner Journey. You can read it here.

I’ll be back as soon as I have something more interesting to talk about than my doctor’s appointments or the fact that I still lie awake in bed at night plotting revenge fantasies on someone who–I can 100% guarantee you–hasn’t thought about me in years. (Yes, one of the aforementioned doctors is a therapist.)

Good times.

One of the things I do in the PEN Mark program is write a weekly blog post.  PEN gave me some guidelines when I started, but they basically let me write about whatever I want.  It would be kind of weird if they didn’t, actually, since the basis of their nonprofit platform is to protect freedom of expression and the rights of writers around the world.  But that’s not my point.  Like most things writing related, I tend to put off writing my weekly post until the last possible minute.  I am a writer who loathes writing, but loves having written.  The post I wrote about memoir a couple of days ago was no exception.  You can read it here.

I’m struggling with a rewrite of the manuscript I’ve been working on for–jesus–six years, and I’m filled with doubt and self-loathing.  There’s a litany of voices singing whocareswhocareswhocares in my head.  They sit at the foot of my bed while I’m sleeping.  They wait for me.  The other day, while the voices harmonized their morning song (“You’re ruining it! Who cares? Eww, stop being so maudlin!), I started thinking about Lorrie Moore, whose work I adore with an unhealthy fervor–no, seriously, I own three copies of Self Help.  Some months back, she wrote a review for the NY Review of Books that basically decried memoir.  The rest of the world (the narrow world I inhabit the fringes of that’s aware of this type of thing) commented on it, or didn’t, and went on with their lives, but that’s just not how I function.  I collect things like that, stuff them into my pockets like loose change and gas receipts, add them to my collection of tiny voices that swell into a choral cacophony of shut the fuck up when I sit down at the page.  Letting go is never going to be my default state.  It just fucking isn’t.  So that’s what I wrote about in my blog post.  And some other stuff that just kind of flowed out of it.

Then Cheryl Strayed Facebooked and Tweeted a heap of praise about my post (which, *swoon*), and Brevity Magazine picked it up and talked about it (more swooning, of course).  You can read that here.

It’s what we all hope for, right?  That people will read our work, be moved in some way, start a conversation.  People shared and re-shared the links.  Friends and acquaintances emailed congratulations. Kevin Sampsell friended me.  (I loved A Common Pornography.  Loved it.)  I was having a really good day.

And then I saw it.

One snarky post on a different magazine’s Facebook page that mocked the tone of what I’d written by mimicking it.  He called it my writing cliche, name-dropped some amazing writers who supported his opinion that what I was saying was old and tired. There was other stuff, too.  Basically, he told me to shut the fuck up.  And his voice was louder than the whole chorus of love I’d been hearing all day.  I had a panic attack before I went to sleep, my heart thudding in my chest so loudly that it literally made my ears pop.

You know how I just said I’ve been working on this book for six years?  That’s not true.  I started this book six years ago, but I’ve seriously derailed a few times along the way.  I’ve had two PEN fellowships, a MacDowell Colony residency, a Norman Mailer Colony fellowship, the CNF Fellowship at the Prague Summer Program, et al.  A fucking chorus of encouragement.  And yet, I let my head get completely overrun by a couple of nasty voices.  Not even necessarily about my work.  One mentor technically fulfilled her obligations, but snubbed me so fucking hard in every single social situation that I thought I was going crazy.  There was the editor of the lauded lit mag who basically told me my work was unreadable, the same work that won me a coveted full scholarship to that prestigious program in Prague.

Guess whose words I hear when my head hits the pillow at night?  It’s not Cheryl Strayed’s or Richard Katrovas’ accolades.  Those tiny, dissenting voices take over my world.  I don’t just need fuck-you goggles, I need a fuck-you hazmat suit.  And a machete.

Don’t confuse vulnerability and weakness.

(cross posted from the PEN USA Mark blog)

The Mark Blog

When I applied for the PEN Emerging Voices program, at the end of 2007, I was a Los Angeles native.  Five generations on my mother’s side.  Old school L.A., yo.  But by the time I made it to the last round, my husband and I had given up our L.A. roots and relocated to San Diego.  120 miles and a world away.  I was worried about that when I walked into the final interview.  I stood outside, at the PEN offices, which were in an odd little business park back then, and I said to myself, “I’m not going to tell them, if they ask me.  I’m going to lie and say that I still live here.”  (By the way, that lasted for about 12 seconds under the laser-sharp questioning from Adam Somers, the executive director of PEN, who is a sweet, kind man who will absolutely decimate you if he thinks you’re full of shit.)

“Listen,” I said.  “I’m living in San Diego now, but, trust me, it doesn’t matter.”  I could feel a trickle of sweat dripping down my back and into my underpants.  “I would crawl on my knees from San Diego on a freeway of broken glass to get here.”

I meant it.   And clearly he believed me, because I was awarded a 2008 Emerging Voices Fellowship.  And sometimes it was like crawling on broken glass to get to L.A., often three times a week, to fulfill my PEN obligations.  And it was totally worth it.  But it took it out of me, I’m not gonna lie.  And as a result, I thought long and hard before I applied for the Mark program, even though the travel schedule is much less rigorous.  It was not a decision I took lightly.

As a Mark participant, I come to L.A. every two weeks or so to meet with the Mark mentor and my fellow Mark participants.  I always come up the night before, because I’m not a morning person, and I tend to get a little panicky in traffic.  And this is Southern California—there’s always traffic.

So, last Saturday, I came up early and had dinner with a couple of writer friends, checked into a PEN event featuring Anne Carson, and was back at my hotel by 10:00 p.m., with plenty of time to review my fellow participants’ work and get a good night’s sleep before a morning meeting.

And then God laughed.

I woke up in the morning and my cut-rate hotel had forgotten my breakfast order.  (First World problem, I’m aware.)  I was half-dressed and almost ready to go in search of caffeine when I bent down—as I’ve done half a million times in my life—to slip on my shoes, annnnnd catastrophically threw my back out.  Not in an “Ooh, what’s that?” kind of way, but in a sweat-pouring, full-blown panic, I-may-have-to-call-the front-desk-to-come-help-me kind of way.

And my prevailing thought, through the whole ridiculous, getting-old-is-not-for-pussies debacle, the only thing I could think about was this:  I cannot miss my workshop at 10:00 a.m.  And you know what?  I fucking didn’t.

There’s something I want to say here about responsibility, accountability, and fear.  But I can’t articulate it properly, because I’m flat on my back, typing this from my bed in San Diego, where I am still in gofuckyourself excruciating pain.  I have a big deadline coming up a week from tomorrow.  Will I make it?  You bet your ass I will.  Why?  Because even though I’ve made plans and God is laughing—loudly, and directly in my face—I will not be deterred from my plans.  Seriously, no one gives a shit if I finish this book or not.  It’s all on me.  There are plenty of books in the world.  We don’t need any more fucking books.  We write because we have to.  Let God laugh.  We’ve got work to do.  Am I right?