Things I’m Working On

On Grief

A little over a month ago, my dog died. We had to make the decision for him, and Jim and my parents had to do it: I had frittered off to England for some research on my novel-in-progress.

When Sprocket was near the end of his life (we didn’t know it with certainty until it became obvious he was in pain), I said to a close friend that I was watching myself very closely: that seminal events by definition chart who you will be, but they also show, to a degree, who you are. I have seen other people’s grief, but I wasn’t sure what I hoped would happen to me.

For many reasons watching a pet die is different from what happens to you when a close friend or relative dies. Pets are a reflection of you (yes, people are too, but just hang onto that thought for a moment), and they only ask that you love them and take care of them. People are so much more complex, and so, although I really hesitate to use the word “pure” in this context, maybe the relationship between a pet and a person is what we hope we can give to all the living beings in our lives, although things like clashing personalities and life events show us differently.

A pet’s world is tiny. It is you, your home, its pack. This small world allows for emotions that we might not otherwise exhibit.

But this post is not about that. This post is about the things that helped, that really helped, when things were really bad.

Getting on with it. Jim and I were far away from each other. But I was with my good friend Nic, who is one of those who just lets people get on with whatever it is they need to do. Grieving is one of those. It was 10AM or so California time when Jim asked if we could “talk,”–Nic and I looked at each other and said, “Uh oh”–and 6PM British time, and Nic and I were having a slow dinner, or drinks, in the little living room of the place we had rented. It was painfully teal, which is crazy, since I love teal. The chandelier had teal accents. I dripped slow tears the entire night and used a lot of toilet paper and paper towels. If I had been with someone who fussed, I may have felt mortified. But Nic just sat in the room with me, doing her thing while I was trying to do mine, and so I was perfectly fine snotting myself and just cleaning up the tears where they fell. Later, of course, I went into my room and cried horrible, wet-faced, drooling tears, and it probably helped that Nic and I were, believe it or not, in the middle of a task when Jim called to tell me what needed to be done, but still. Sometimes you just need a space to be sad.

Say everything you ever wanted to say before. We found out Sprocket had osteosarcoma in July. Between then and Sprocket’s final trip to the vet, there were two times when we thought we’d have to say goodbye. And there were the trips to the river, and trips to see friends, and weekly trips to Sprocket’s oncologist, where he got his radiation treatments. Every single time he went under anesthesia, I told him I loved him and I would see him soon, and that he was a good boy, and I thanked him for his many years of friendship. And each time we thought we’d have to say goodbye, my entire family did the same, especially the penultimate time, which happened the day before my brother and his family left us from their holiday visit. Everyone said goodbye; everyone said they loved him. My sister-in-law, who is a neat, tidy person, got down on her knees on Sprocket’s ratty old bed and hugged and kissed my dying dog on his head, and my niece sat close to him and patted him. My brother wrote to me the night Sprocket died. He wrote, “Everything that needed to be said was said.” My sister-in-law texted photos. And our vet sent a note that said we did the best we could, and that it was obvious how we cared for Sprocket. Those things together have me resolving to never leave things unsaid, even if they might be embarrassing to say. My mom, most taciturn of people when it comes to showing emotion, still says to me, “We gave him a good life, didn’t we?” For me, that means telling him at every opportunity how much he mattered, even if he didn’t speak the language, exactly.

Remember the good times. Oh, gosh. How people do like to say this. And yet, it is the truest of all things, that it really does help with the “terrible feelings of loss,” as our good friend Dan’s mother wrote to us. As I read Carol’s words, I had the same sense of skepticism I always have with what sound like well-worn platitudes, but then later that night, I could only fall asleep by remembering the feel of Sprocket’s perfect little cranium beneath my hand; his funny mustache and the whuffing he would do in our ears when he felt like we weren’t paying enough attention. Wet nose; cold tunnel-air from it; funny little toes gripping my palm when I told him to shake. And later, when we finally posted to facebook that we had said goodbye to Sprocket, we asked all of our friends to post their favorite stories or memories of him. We were not prepared for the hundreds of memories that came through, some with their own photographs. We laughed, and cried, and even though we were still apart from each other, this helped us individually, more than I can properly express.

Take joy in other people’s good fortune. I really worried that I would be one of those people who couldn’t stand to see other people with their dogs after Sprocket died. But I was in England at the time, and so there were dogs everywhere, happily going off on their own down trails and rolling in sand and also meandering around in bookstores. The evening after, Nic and I were messing around in a bookstore when a fat springer spaniel came in. It was smelling things, and I asked if I could pat it, and the thing sat on my foot and *barooooooed* randomly, and its owner said, “Flash! Flash! You must stop making that noise!” and I think I was so surprised, and so pleased, to hear myself laugh, even though I was sad, even though I couldn’t stop myself from telling her that my dog had just died. And when I finally got home and was jogging my usual hamster-wheel route around my neighborhood, I saw people with their dogs and spent all my time being grateful that these people had these creatures in their lives.

I don’t know if this grieving process will be the same as I get older. I’m sure I will learn more about it as time goes on. But these are the things I’ve learned, and maybe they will help you, too.

The very last photo I took of my boy.

The very last photo I took with my boy.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My reading roundup: 2017

For the better part of the last two years I’ve been trying to do better at reading diversely. I already knew I wanted to read more books by women, but I’ve been espousing this idea of reading diversely using the U.S. Census as a convenient backbone.

The most recently available figures in terms of ethnic/racial breakdwon are:

  • 5.8% Asian
  • 13.3% Black
  • 17.8% Latinx/Hispanic (The U.S. Census notes that “Hispanics may be of any race” so are also counted in those applicable categories.)
  • 1.3% Native American

I read 60 books in 2017, and here’s where I ended up:

  • Books by Asian writers: 13%
  • Books by Black writers: 10%
  • Books by Latinx/Hispanic writers: 1.6%
  • Books by Native American writers: 0%

Well. That’s not so good. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to read widely in my own ethnic makeup, but I definitely missed the mark in terms of reading works by Hispanic writers or works by Native American writers. If I’m generous to myself, and I extend my query to the last 100 books I read, just to make it easier in terms of math, my percentage of books read by Black writers falls even further, to 8%, and even though I gain a Latinx/Hispanic writer, well, that still puts me at a miserable 2%, far, far below where I want to be.

This year I will hope to do better. This year I will read at least one book by a Native American writer. I’d been meaning to pick up the Sherman Alexie memoir, and my own publisher, who is Latina, has a book out too, so…all things I can get cracking on. You can add me as a friend to see what I’ve been reading lately.

What’s are your reading resolutions for 2018? Tell me in the comments below.

books

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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.

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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.

What Do Editors Do, Anyway?

Over at one of my day jobs, I’m the nonfiction editor for the Tahoma Literary Review. I love it to pieces, even if sometimes the work makes my head spin. We read a lot of submissions over there, and we really only get to take a fraction–I do mean a literal fraction–of the work we get. (Over time, it has waffled between five and seven percent for the nonfiction category; in fiction and poetry it’s hovering around one percent.)

I have said this in other places, but I will repeat it here: When I get work from you, I consider it a very big deal. I consider it a gift, in fact. I felt the same when I was editing fiction, but nonfiction carries an added gravitas to me; it’s like we made a bond, the minute you decided to send me your work, because you chose me to tell your story to.

I almost don’t have to say this part, but I want to: When we edit your work, we are doing so because we have think we have found a gem in your piece. There is some other stuff covering it up, so we get out our little excavation brushes and we carefully, gently, work with you to brush some extraneous stuff away. Maybe use some tweezers. So glad we spent all that time playing “Operation” years ago, or in my case, so glad I finally learned to tweeze my eyebrows.

What is this stuff we are editing away, or asking you to add? Sometimes, it’s the language you use to cover up what you really mean. Sometimes, it’s the sweatsuit you put on because you don’t like the lines of your hips. Other times, it’s the TURN LEFT AT ALBUQUERQUE sign you put up for the reader, when really you mean, “Stay with me. Let’s go over here together.”

operation

We are here to help your fine, fine work really sparkle.

Okay. So what is the point of all this? Actually, it’s not the what we do that’s really interesting, it’s the why.

Yesterday, I got an email from a TLR contributor, Chris Arthur. One of his essays, “Glass,” has been listed in the Best American Essays 2016 volume as a “Notable” essay. People, I am chuffed to pieces. I am so pleased for Chris, and proud of the work we did together, and I want to let you know: When you get published? When you feel good about the work we’ve done together? When others recognize the work you’ve done to tell me your story and then polish it to its best possible form?

That’s why we do the work we do. And that’s why, every time something good happens to any TLR contributor, we want to know about it.

blue-tit

(Chris’s wonderful essay is about a blue tit crashing into his window, but it’s about oh, so much more than that. You can read it in TLR’s Vol. 2 No. 2, here.)

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.