brain flotsam

Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and My Headshot

Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.

  1. A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
  2. A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
  3. Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
  4. Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”

I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].

Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.

I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:

  • Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
  • Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?

And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:

[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize! 

It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.

The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.

(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)

That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**

When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.

And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***

And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”

And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:

You are enough

You are worth it

You are beautiful

Love yourself

No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. 

 

People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.

loveyourself

Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.

Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.

Trust me. I know.

So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.

But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.

Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.

*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.

**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.

***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?

****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Of Obituaries and the Passing of Regrets, Part 1

I spent a good amount of time last week editing obituaries for my day job. While such a task can feel honorary, part of the work made me sad. Not for the passing of the people, exactly–most of them were old and seemed to have lived full lives–but more for the way in which we commemorate the ones who have gone before.

Within the 21 obituaries I edited, I came across several mentions of service clubs and church activities. There was talk of having contributed to community by service on housing associations. Several had served in the military. One talked about a lifelong passion for planes (the obit itself was airplane-themed, tying the deceased’s birth to Lucky Lindy’s flight one year before across the Atlantic). Every single one of them mentioned work. Only two or three mentioned the deceased’s personality, and that, I think, is what really had me wondering: What’s our real legacy in this life? In the end, should we be aiming more for the types of notes we left in each other’s yearbooks senior year–“You were always nice to me”–than a list of accolades, which we won’t be able to enjoy in the afterlife, and which our descendants and loved ones will only be able to keep under glass and look at in the years after our passing?

hp photosmart 720

(via Kelly Davio.)

Last week, my book turned 1. Originally, this was going to be a post about the things I learned over the course of the year. I think now I’ll save that for another post–soon, I promise–and talk to you instead about a guy I knew in college, a writer named Gerald McDermott. To save you from going to Wikipedia, I’ll briefly tell you these facts: He wrote and illustrated children’s books, and he also made some short films.

He was also my first real brush with the world of publishing. He came to speak at my alma mater. I don’t remember what he talked about, exactly–I think it was about mythology, since he was an expert in that–and he also read his Caldecott-winning book _Arrow to the Sun_ to us.

Arrow-to-the-Sun

The most important fact of all is that he was generous. He was kind, and keen to help someone like me, who was interested in book publishing. We had a few e-mail exchanges after he came to talk, even after graduation, and he always was responsive. He made me feel like I could get to that world if I wanted to. In the end, I didn’t go into children’s publishing or picture books, and I think our last exchange may have been–gosh, not long after I moved to New York, I guess, so three years or so after I met him. A long time ago.

At any rate, I still remember his openness. The fact that he was so willing to help. I didn’t know or understand the Caldecott Medal when we met, but now that I know he won it years ago and was a close friend of Joseph Campbell, I am stunned that he had the time to exchange missives with a dopey college student who didn’t know any better than to not bother someone of his…time constraint.

Anyway, the day my book turned 1, I got a wild hair to write to Mr. McDermott again and tell him that I’d actually made something of myself in publishing. I think I owe some of my policy on helping new writers to him, although I didn’t really think of the connection until last Saturday.

We have the Internet now, so I didn’t have to go rooting through my desk drawers in my parents’ house looking for his business card. (I’m sure it’s still there somewhere.) I was super excited to write to him. I don’t know if I really cared whether or not he replied. I guess I just wanted him to know that he had made a difference.

And then I found out he died in 2012.

I don’t think I know how to rightly express to you what a crusher this was.

Gerald McDermott, January 31, 1941 – December 26, 2012

Gerald McDermott was a Nice Guy. He was interested in everything, and even when approached by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college students who asked if they could be his intern right there on the spot, was unflappable. He answered all the questions and made every single one seem worth asking. He let people down gently, or maybe they were too obtuse to know otherwise, but this is about Gerald.

Gerald thought in big, bold lines and bright colors. His commitment of legends and myths to paper and film made them accessible to probably tens of thousands of people who would have never otherwise known about them. He was one of those rare storytellers who could make the most basic child’s lament come true: “I wish I could see this story in real life.” Lo, Gerald could make that happen.

Gerald had very friendly eyes. He had great laugh lines and crow’s feet, and a good beard. His e-mail style was exclamatory, happy to hear from you, even if there was never a single exclamation point.

This is what you need to know.*

Here is something else I would like you to know: If you met someone a long time ago and they made a difference, don’t wait. Send them an email, a piece of fan mail, ping them on their facebook page. Do this not because I’m sure every author/actor/whatever would love to hear from you. Do this because, if the goal of life is to make it through with no regrets (as I get older, I think this is a pretty good one), you don’t want to be stymied by something as idiotic as “Gee, I never wrote to them to tell them how great I think they are. What a wasted opportunity.”

Who would you like to write to? Why not do it, today? I don’t mean the famous types, either, guys. I mean, the people you just like, the ones who are famous to YOU. Go on. Pick up the phone. Drop a postcard. You won’t be sorry.

P.S. The guy who owns GeraldMcDermott.com now recognizes the former owner of the site by archiving McDermott’s old site on his server. I think this is such a nice gesture.

McDermott

 

*Some of you may know that the selection of McDermott’s book as a winner, and his interpretation of the tales he retold, were under scrutiny. This post isn’t about that, but you can read up on it here, if you like. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“Self-motivation” is a myth, and what I’m doing about it

Hey guys. Remember when we were back in school, or applying for our first jobs, and “self-motivation” was a thing? Like, it was a quality you touted during job interviews, and that your teachers may have called out on your report cards, maybe.

Anyway. I have decided this is not really a thing. Everything, aside from basic like functions like eating and sleeping, seems to require some kind of self-motivation. Showing up to a job interview, applying for the job, seems to take some kind of self-motivation. Not falling asleep in Comp 80 class: self-motivation! Going for that donut run instead of attending Brit Lit: self-motivation!

Okay, I’m being absurd. Sure. But honestly, I can’t think of a single thing that doesn’t require some self-motivation. Even the stuff I love to do, like reading and writing, requires some self-motivation. But some days are harder than others. And some things are way harder than others, for one reason or another.

Most difficult things, in fact, seem to require external motivation.

I find myself up against two of these things lately. First, I’ve been more than lackadaisical when it comes to drafting my second novel. I’m super excited about it; I just … have other things to do. I find myself dragging my feet at the most idiotic things: it too me two and a half weeks to print out a piece of research, one of those that would allow me to draft the next few pages.

And I’ve been been embarrassingly lax when it comes to my own fitness. Part of that is due to travel; part of it due to injury; most of it is due to injury sustained because I’ve been lax about my own fitness. Basically, I’m at rock bottom.

The second is relatively easy to solve. I just go back to what I know: Set aside time. Make it sacred, and a priority. And then set a goal. So I have a browser window open right now that’ll sign me up for a half-marathon in a couple months.

The first of these is a life-long problem when I don’t have a deadline. Writing things on-spec requires bucketloads of self-motivation. Oh, sure, there may be one or two days where I’ll crank out a thousand or even a couple thousand words, but then weeks–WEEKS!–can go by with no progress whatsoever.

So I fell back on an old standby: the thermometer chart. I made one for myself when I was drafting my first novel, and it worked like a charm. Here’s this year’s version, which takes into account a few things I didn’t need to address last time around. More on those later.

IMG_6241

A lot of people, when I mention this chart, seem surprised or impressed. I’m surprised that more people aren’t doing this. It works like this: The increments are marked off each thousand words. And every five thousand words, there are little awards, like this. Sometimes they’re little: a new tube of lip balm; a new sheet of stickers. Sometimes they’re bigger, like a day at the aquarium.

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The progress is marked by colored bars, or doodles, on the left-hand side of the chart, like so:

IMG_6242

Now, this is a new chart, but an old project, so I’m already at 19,650 words. That’s actually way more than I thought I was at. But I’ll be starting to track progress daily from here.

I’m also planning on pulling the trigger on some accountability partners. You know, the people who e-mail you and say HEY YOU. WHAT DID YOU DO TODAY? Predictably, by the time today I get around to it, it will have been over a week since a friend emailed to say that she’d be interested in being my accountability partner. Which I feel bad about.

Actually, I think that’s probably the more efficient way to look at self-motivation. Do the shit you have to do so that you don’t feel bad about not doing it.

Anyway. Tell me about your, uh, self-motivators below. I’d be curious to hear what you do when you’re in a rut.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A short story

Hello,

I woke up this morning with a memory floating around my head. If you know me in real life, it’s probably a story I’ve told you before, but I’ve never actually committed it to paper, and I want to tell it to you now.

A long, long time ago, a close friend asked her friends to meet her in New York to celebrate her impending nuptials. Now, it wasn’t quite a bachelorette party, with sashes and penis straws and belly shots, but it was an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate our friend and the fact that she was getting married, something she had wanted for a very, very long time.

The problem was, I didn’t want her to get married to this particular guy. There are lots of gory reasons why; let’s just say they were good reasons and leave it at that. Anyway, we were getting together to celebrate my friend, is the way we all looked at it. It was a nice evening night out. My friend had moved away from New York by then, and so had I, but it was nice to re-live our days together as single women tearing around town and being irresponsibly drunk. Plus, I got to meet some of my friend’s other lifelong friends, people who predated me, and I’d known my friend for close to a decade.

At the end of the night, we found a taxi cab driver who was willing to let six of us into his cab (it was his last fare of the night), and since I was staying the furthest north, I was also the last to be dropped off.

The cab driver engaged me in some conversation en route:

“She’s getting married, is she?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t seem very happy about it.”

“I’m not.”

I can’t possibly detail the conversation that took place after this little exchange, because this is not a novel: I sat in his cab for 45 minutes, talking to him through the little transom window, about my friend and our friendship and what it meant that I didn’t feel I could go to her wedding and stand up for her union with this person.

You guys. 45 minutes. I remember the glow of 2nd Avenue; the light bouncing off the asphalt, gold in places and turning red…green…yellow in other places. Red…green…yellow, over and over again, and we talked about what friendship means and whether or not I should go to this wedding. I remember he had a piece of paper in his hands, and he folded it over and over again, and then unfolded it and started all over, as he listened and gave me feedback and talked to me about what I should do and what it would mean if I did or didn’t go.

In the end, his advice was this: You need to go to this wedding, because if you don’t, and the marriage falls apart, she’ll never know if she can trust you to support her.

In the end, I didn’t go to the wedding. My friend was hurt, and angry for a very long time. I don’t blame her, although part of me knows it was better for me not to go, and the other part of me is so deeply regretful that I didn’t go. In some ways I haven’t progressed past that night in the cab.

But of all the amazing things there were to remember that night–being near my good friend, meeting the other people who were important in her life; backtracking through time, it seemed, to a place I thought I’d left behind–I return to that conversation with the cab driver most often. His kindness; the fact that he was willing to give me some time out of the end of his night (and no, there weren’t any expectations or anything gross like that you guys); his very good advice–

I’m so glad someone out there like that exists in this world.

Now I’ve told you this story, and I hope you get as much out of it as I did experiencing it. It cemented something I was beginning to really actively practice back then: everyone has something to offer you.

photo: inquisitr.com

photo: inquisitr.com

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A Way Forward: Two Stories

I want to tell you guys something. Two things, actually.

They both happened in the last quarter. They are not unusual things, but they happened to me directly. I see them as things to learn from, to move forward from, and I invite you to talk about and comment on them with a forward-looking lens. Now, more than ever in our fractured times, this is the best view.

1 Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. Jim and I drove to Utah and did a race together. We spent time with some friends and took the opportunity, on the drives to and from, to see a few things I’d never seen before, like an awesome bookstore in Salt Lake City and the Hoover Dam.

The night before we saw the Hoover Dam, we had dinner at the Boulder City Brewhouse. It was right across the street from the historic hotel we were staying it; it had good beer…we were happy.

Towards the end of our meal we noticed one of the patrons leering at a waitress. He seemed to be a regular, because they were making conversation, but it became obvious that he was going above and beyond. “How you doing?” she said, for instance, and he replied, “Good. Just waiting for you to offer home delivery.” (Emphasis his.) He openly gaped at her, eyeballing her up and down as she worked and walked around him. It was no surprise when a male waiter, the manager, we guessed, ended up taking the guy’s order.

On the way out I felt a real sense of regret. I balked at the door, and then again on the pathway just outside, wanting so badly to have said something to her. Obviously the restaurant management was aware of the problem and had done the right thing.

Do I think we’d have gone up to the guy and told him to knock it off? Not likely, for a number of reasons: The restaurant clearly was handling it in their own way; Boulder City is a small town and I’m a tourist; I would rather empower her than step in on her behalf; etcetera. Do I think we should have gone to the waitress and told her we’d noticed the bad behavior, and then also flagged the management, even if they were already doing something about it? Yeah, I do. We both left feeling pretty disgusted, with ourselves and the whole situation.

2. Yeah, I’m Not From There. Some of you may know that I do a reasonable amount of public speaking about nonprofits I’m involved in. These talks involve me going, hat in hand, to service organizations and telling them about the cause. Sometimes I’m invited in to talk about my work. Either way, it’s good, clean, fun, and work I’m glad to do.

Until it wasn’t. I met my host in Seoul in May, at a convention for this particular service group. By way of introducing me to one of his club members at a talk I was doing earlier this month, he said, “This is Yi Shun. I rescued her from the DMZ.”

Folks, I was utterly bamboozled. I made the only pivot I could think of, turned to the guy he was introducing me to, a full-on, plaid-wearing white guy farmer, and said, “Yeah. Where’d he rescue you from? Nicaragua?” Predictably, the guy was confused. I felt only vaguely satisfied and went on with my event.

Do I wish I’d called my host out? Perhaps. Does it incense me to recall this event? Yes. There was so much wrong with this commentary, all the way down to the making fun of the awful plight of people who actually do try to escape from North Korea.

You are by now picking up on the pattern. In the last quarter alone I have stayed silent at least twice, where my first instinct was to speak out. Obviously there are smart ways to do this–we don’t live in vacuums, and so we must take these actions considering our entire ecosystems, whether the ecosystem be a small restaurant or the wider world of service clubs and my responsibility to the group I am representing.

But the time for staying silent has gone by. Politesse can co-exist with a lot of things. A well-placed word or a long, hard stare can fix a lot of things. Letting a long pause go by likely would have registered my deep displeasure at my host’s racist commentary at the appropriate time. A quiet word to the manager and waitress both would have at least let them know we supported their handling of the problem.

But silence, as they say, registers complacency, and that time is dead.

This Thanksgiving, someone’s drunk Uncle Jerry is going to say something bigoted, racist, or just plain stupid. Bitching at drunk uncle Jerry himself won’t do anything–he’s drunk–but we can at least exhibit some extreme pissiness. There is a whole table of Thanksgiving revelers who need to know that this shit is not okay.

Call it as you see it. “See something, say something,” is applicable to all kinds of situations.

Me? I see a note to my service-club host in progress. While I won’t out him here, he needs to know that what he said was hurtful and wrong, and I’m going to hang the donation. Some things come with too high a price tag.

Woman Shouting with Bullhorn --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Woman Shouting with Bullhorn — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Some notes on “literary community” for writers

Sunday morning, grey out, and there are sooo many things on my mind, not the least of which is what feels like a metric ton of snot pressing on my sinuses. Sorry, Internet, but you needed to know what you’re dealing with.

I’m still noodling over the first part of my book tour, and this thing folks are calling “literary community,” or “literary citizenship.”

What does it mean, exactly? Some have said that, in order to be a great literary citizen, you need to show up at book signings and readings. You should volunteer at your local bookstore and buy books from your indie bookseller whenever you can. You should support other writers.

I agree with all of these. But there is one aspect of literary community that I think is often overlooked in the great equation of “platform building”: You were a reader before you ever became a writer. It’s easy to forget that, when you are all writerly stuff, all the time. Here’s some of what that means for me:

  • When I asked for beta-readers (read: test readers) for my novel, I asked folks who are readers, not just writers. That is, I asked friends who were not at all connected to the writing world, and who were avid readers.
  • When I craft events, I try to build in an element that the non-writers in the audience will enjoy, as well. Sometimes this means asking someone outside of the writerly world to interview me; sometimes it means making an event that everyone can enjoy. Either way, I like it when someone walks away from an event with a take-home.
  • I read willy-nilly. That is, I read outside of my own genre on a regular basis.
  • I work extra-hard to maintain relationships with people who aren’t writers. This isn’t to say I value any of these relationships of any of the others. I’m just a little hyper-aware that it takes more to maintain friendships with folks with whom you don’t also work.

Now, looking back over this short list, I think it maybe comes down to this: We are more than our professions. We are well-rounded people with lots of interests. When we think about our writerly careers, we should also consider the stuff that falls outside of the writerly boundaries.

DIY-friendship-bracelets-2

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Open Letter to My Gym’s Howler Monkey Guy

Dear Howler Monkey Guy,

You are not working hard enough. I know this because you are bouncing up and down in the saddle of your spin bike like a problematic Jack in the Box. You have zero resistance on your wheel.

Half the time you are standing up due to some misguided notion that you are firming up your glutes or whatever by doing so.

(You are still pedaling too fast, even as you are standing up.)

You are annoying and distracting. Now I know how Monica Seles’s opponents felt on the tennis court. Yes, I just compared you to a girl in a very short skirt. (Somehow I know this will annoy you to no end.)

But at least Monica Seles was consistent: she grunted every time she hit the ball. (Plus, she is way more bad-ass than you will ever be.)

But you! You are surprising, and not in a good way. You make the howler-monkey noise if you like the song; when you feel yourself moved by the amount you are sweating; if you like the way you look in the big wall mirror; if you feel the sweat stain you are producing on the front of your shirt looks particularly like something you like…I don’t know. I don’t live in your brain, thank god.

howler-monkey

If you were working as hard as I am, you would not have enough energy or breath to Howler-Monkey. I know this.

I spend all of my time trying to outride you, but I can’t, because we are in spin class, and our bicycles are stationary.

So I moved from where you can startle me when you whoop, although I liked that position there. It was right in front of the mirror, so I could see the way my right knee tracks a little bit to the side when I ride, and correct it. I could keep my eye on my shoulders and ensure they are level, belying only small movements, every potential movement channeled right into my chicken calves.

But you were too close to me there, in a direct sonar line right behind me. I imagine your WOO! drills right into my medulla oblongata, or whatever part of my brain it is at the base of my skull, which must also be the part that makes all the hairs on the back of my neck rise up.

WOO!

Also, even though you are directly behind me so I do not have to look at your face when you WOO!, I still have to see you bobbing, weaving, bouncing all over the fucking place. I see glimpses of you, multiples of you, every pedal stroke, and it’s like this disappearing/appearing you is more stressful than the regular old you would be if I just had to stare at you all the time.

But the WOO!s are loud. They are SO loud from here. So I move.

I was wrong. Although this corner of the class is right by the very loud rotating fan they have on the ceiling to provide some kind of breeze, and thus is very very loud and sometimes drowns out your WOO!s, I can see all of you now, all the time, because there is sometimes no one between my line of sight in the mirror and you.

From here you look like a factory-discard bobble-head doll: “Oh, no. No, no, This prototype will never do. It moves so much it will scare small children. Throw it out. Put it in a dark room where no one will ever find it.” They dim the lights in spin class, but not enough, by a long shot.

If Howler-Monkey guy were to imagine himself a bobblehead

If Howler-Monkey guy were to imagine himself a bobblehead

Ah! Today you have shaved your normal porn-star mustache, so I can see the split second your lips start to purse and you start to blow out and argh argh argh, because there it is. WOO! The noise comes out of your pursed hairless lips, and all I can think of a literal asshole, blowing wind.

WOO!

Anyway. In this corner you are less noisy. But you are just as disruptive, and not in an uber/AirBnB kind of way. You just are annoying.

Real cyclists, by the way, do not ride the way you do. We do not bob and weave. We funnel all of our energy to our legs, from our neck down, as much as we can. Our shoulders are rock-steady. If we bobbed and wove like you did, we would be all over the road so fast.

We also do not WOO!

But you are not a real cyclist. You have probably never taken your bike outside. Do you even have a bike?

I think it is not a coincidence that, after every class with you, I do something like looking up a triathlon or a group ride or something.

There on the open road, the thinking probably goes, from my damaged medulla oblongata, I would not have to deal with you. If you did start to WOO!, I could just ride faster.

On the open road, I know, the wind rushes past my ears so fast that I can hardly hear my husband or friends calling to me.

I can hardly hear the gentle beeps of the cars wanting to pass, not that we hear them that often. Going downhill on a swooping mountain road, we are faster than they are. And on the uphills, I have only enough energy to contemplate my whistling lungs, my heartbeat pounding in my ear; the midges gathering around the sweat on my nose.

If I am in the foothills, on the trail, I hear nothing but birds, since I am usually alone. I pay close attention to where my front wheel is tracking, what the terrain looks like; can I make this short steep climb?

Cars hardly need to beep anyway, because I am a good cyclist. I take periodic glances over my shoulder.

On the open road, or trail, I am strong and fast and I am frustrated only by my lack of strength, or endurance. On the open road, if I hear something that annoys me, I can outride it. Him. Her. Sometimes, the stray dog, nipping at my heels.

On the open road I can see the end of the hill. The scenery distracts with its variety. My mind does not roam, though, to how annoyed I am, because you need to pay attention to the tiniest things on the open road, on the mountain trail.

How I wish I were there now!

Why am I not there now? Why do I let you torture me?

If I go to spin class in my eyeglasses and not my contacts, I have to take off my eyeglasses, so I don’t sweat all over them. And in this darker corner of the room, I can choose not to see as much.

In my refection in the mirror I can barely see my lips, stretched in a gasping grin, trying to ride out the effort. I wheeze through my teeth and try to outride your WOO!

The instructor says, like he always does, Relax your shoulders. Relax your face. This is not running.

If it were, I would outrun you, Howler Monkey Guy.

On the open road I would not grimace when you WOO. We are not even in the same universe, Howler Monkey Guy.

In the reflection of the gym mirror, in this darker corner to which I have moved to escape you, I can also hardly see my age spots, especially the huge one of my cheek. These age spots sit right over my cheekbones, the ones I’ve been been praised for all my life. In this dark corner, they are less prominent.

Put on sunscreen, says the doc. I tried that; SPF50 all the time.

“Let’s try bleaching cream,” said that doc. Tried that, too.

My husband says my spots are lightening up. But whenever I get out of the pool, I feel I can see a noticeable difference…I can see it—them—the ugliest blotches I have ever seen on any face, dark, stain-like, on my countenance.

I find it hard to look at pictures now, of myself in my 20s and all the way through my mid-30s, when the spots were not yet there.

I got the big one—well, it appeared, anyway, after a stint in the Philippines with the disaster relief agency I love so much. Close to the equator. Working all day. Not enough sunscreen in the world.

Sometimes, in my wildest, darkest dreams, I think I’d rather lose a finger, a toe, instead of having these stains on my face.

Sometimes, I like awake at night, thinking to myself, if I am this stained at 41, how will I look at 60? 75?

This is a losing proposition. This is just as bad as trying to outride you, Howler Monkey Guy, in a classroom of spin bikes.

Why am I here?

I am here because one can swim in the dark, at night, and one can run in the dark.

One cannot ride one’s bike in the dark, not where I like to go.

So one will tolerate you, won’t one, just to be close to one’s bicycle. One will collapse over one’s useless, unsteerable handlebars, time after time, effort after effort, deflated by your stabbing, animal yelps.

WOO!

One’s husband will tell one that one has GOT to get over it.

If one could get over this massive age spot on one’s face, this would not even be a problem. One would be outside, on the open road, where she truly wants to be.

outside

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Snippets

It has been what feels like an obscenely long time since I’ve blogged.

In the meantime, my book had its birthday and we had ten days’ worth of houseguests, and then I went to Seoul to participate in the Rotary International Convention on behalf of ShelterBox, and then I had a most extraordinary time being carted around South Korea, talking about writing and publishing with interested parties all around.

Truly, I lead a charmed life.

On the last day of lectures, a grueling 4 hours of talking broken up by a pleasant hour-long lunch, I got a note from one of the attendees in the audience. Having evidence of the work we did together outside of Instagrammable, social media fodder in my hands, a tiny little craft-paper envelope with precise writing on it, still warm from her hands, is such a present. I, too, may take to carrying around little cards, the better to thank people in tangible fashion, on the fly. How much we can learn from each other!

IMG_4307

Over my three days with the Embassy, I met some other characters, people I’ll forever be grateful with for making it so obvious that sharing what I’ve learned with others is bound to be a most gratifying existence.

The Old Storyteller: He comes to many of the American Corner Daegu’s events. He speaks pretty spot-on English and has stories he wants to pass on, but he’s 85 and wanted to know what I would tell someone like him, someone who’s tried to write but can’t seem to do it. Time is short, he says. “When should I quit trying?”

The Anxious Girl: “You said we should write every day. Well, I draw every day. Is that okay?” Later, meeting me one-on-one, her hands shook as she tried to turn to a page in her notebook. I mis-stepped, asked if she wanted an autograph, like her classmates, but no, she wanted to show me her drawings, and boy! Were they something! Reptile claws over a planet overgrown with trees and scrub and vines; silhouetted people standing at the hearts of planets, trees rising out through their heads…Yes, yes, write every day, but geez, don’t stop doing these, ever.

The Concerned Citizens: “I wanted to know if you consider yourself a feminist.” And “You say we should fight the efficient fight when it comes to unfairness in the workplace. What is the best way for writers to do this?” And, “As a writer, do you think Donald Trump is exercising free speech?”

The Enthusiastic One: “You’re my very first author ever.”

The Worrier: “I think I carry around so much of what people say in critiques. How do you know what to take and what not to take?”

The Interpreter: Did you know that, during simultaneous interpretation, interpreters have to switch out every ten or fifteen minutes? It’s that grueling.

The Single Girl: My handler over the three days in Korea was this amazing young woman who has no plans of getting married and no plans for kids. She’s truly a career woman, a person who’s constantly curious, always living, it seems, whether that take the form of hiking up Seoul’s beautiful hills or scouting locations for visitors like me or enjoying whatever it is she’s eating. I wish we could have spent more time together.

The Veteran: “Could you sign this for me? I want to show our young people what we can do with our creativity. And I want to show them what we Orientals [sic] can do when we go abroad.”*

What a terrific three days. How lucky I am!

*No, I’m not offended. It’s a dated phrase, and the guy was near 80.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.