Brain Flotsam 6

The Daily Life Text

Welcome to Brain Flotsam, the weekly digest of things I read, saw, or otherwise encountered that made my week more interesting. This week I saw five friends in person and got to interact with so many more in real time. What a great, packed week. And, the following:

  • One night this week I dreamed I had tried out for and made the high school cheerleading squad. We had to go to a tournament soon after. And I spent all of my time F-R-E-A-K-I-N-G O-U-T. Like, “I can’t do this! I have never been in a TOURNAMENT before!” And then part of me said, “Ridiculous. Why do you think they picked you for the squad? You have been training for this all your life! A tournament is just a bigger tryout! You can do this!” I like to think it was my conscious, slowly realizing I was dreaming, or do I like to think that? Wouldn’t I rather think that my subconscious, telling me that I can do whatever it is that’s coming my way? (NB: I have never wanted to try out for cheerleading, although I did rather envy the little pleated skirts and tiny sweaters.)
  • Sometime last week I stopped hitting “like” on facebook posts. (I borrowed the idea from this guy.) I think, honestly, it was because the introduction of the new “react” options tipped me over the edge into decision fatigue. Now I react only using comments. I think it’s made me a more thoughtful person. (Don’t laugh.)
  • A new museum! It’s of broken hearts!
  • I made this fish stew this week. It was delicious, and then I left it out on the counter after we’d had our second meal from it. Sad. Oh well.
  • The MFA program I graduated from is closing its doors this semester. I don’t have anything coherent to say about this yet, except this: I am sad that I won’t be able to give back to the community that gave me so much, now that I’ll be a published author soon. Lesson learned: contribute whenever you can. Don’t wait.
  • I am still reading Stephen King’s It. I would like it to end sometime soon, and it looks like it will. After this, I think I should read something rather less gothic. And shorter. The last time it took me this long to read something, it was Moby-Dick (chapter 18! Still no whale!) and I was on deployment in Malawi, and I never finished it.
_It_ feels about as big as this whale.
Stephen King’s _It_ feels about as big as this whale.

I think that’s it for this week. Hopefully by the next time we check in together, I will have finished reading _It_ and moved onto something comforting and fluffy. What did you see this past week? Tell me in the comments below.

P.S. My MFA program’s mascot is the orca whale. I think I won’t be able to look at Orcas for a long time without feeling a little bit sad.

If Literary Readings Were Major Sporting Events

The Daily Life Text

Howie Long: Hi, sports fans, I’m Howie Long.

Phil Liggett: And I’m Phil Liggett.


HL: And we’re back from break to bring you live coverage of a very special event: The annual Golden Pencil literary readings.

PL: That’s right, Howie. Now, you may not know this, but this is actually the 20th anniversary of the readings. At stake? The coveted Golden Pencil, a prize absolutely salivated over by every budding writer since 2005.

HL: Well, Phil, the energy in here is certainly up high for a reading.

PL: Who knows what the readers are feeling tonight? We’ve seen some remarkable talent tonight, through the genres, but we have a ringer coming up right now, the penultimate reader of the night. Susie Weekins has just come out from behind the curtain, looking like she’s deep-breathing. Now, Howie, this is a common exercise for seasoned readers. You often can tell the newbies because they’re in the bar, quaffing one too many Cherry Cordials before they take their places at the podium, instead of working on their lungs.

HL: Cherry Cordials!

PL: Yes, Howie, it’s a thing.

HL: Well, anyway. So Susie is up next. She’s a veteran reader, isn’t that right, Phil? And, our sources tell us she actually is a veteran of the Air Force–did I just make a pun?

PL: You did, Howie. Well done.

HL: Next to Susie, you see her coach, Bob Kirkland, one of the nonfiction faculty here at the workshop. Looks like he’s whispering some peptalk into Susie’s ear. What kind of pep talk might writers need, Phil?

PL: Well, Howie, it could be anything from “Remember the windmills”–a nod to Don Quixote, you know–to a more modern quotation from essayist Elissa Washuta, designed to evoke feelings of great calm.

HL: Great calm! Well, who knew? This sure is unlike any sport I’ve ever covered.

PL: Indeed, Howie. And after Susie reads, the lineup will end with the rarest of rare in this arena, Chuck Panterson.

HL: But Phil, why is Chuck such a rarity?

PL: He’s male.

HL: Ohhh.

PL: Indeed, Howie. Oh, Howie! Look at Susie as she moves towards the podium. She’s got her game face on, for sure. And she’s wearing that great maroon top, the same one she wore last year when she rocked the house with her reading about a canoe–

HL: A canoe! Writers can operate canoes?

PL: Shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry.

PL: Anyway, the fact that she’s wearing that same top tells me that she’s feeling good and strong. You know, Howie, writers often have funny little quirks. Some of them don’t bathe for days before a reading. Just look at the way Susie cranks that microphone towards her. She is feeling good. Last year, the MFA invested in a new mike. It’s going to improve the readers’ performance for sure.

HL: Do you go to a lot of these, Phil?

PL: Do shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry. Ooh! What’s Susie doing now?

PL: Oh, she’s engaging in a common crowd-engagement tactic. She’s calling for their support by telling them she’s feeling nervous. Now, I know this is something we see a lot, but I gotta tell you, coming out of Susie, I don’t buy it for one minute. She’s trying to psych out the other readers, and I think it might just work. Once you get the crowd behind you, you can’t lose.

HL: What does Susie have to do bring home the bacon tonight, Phil?

PL: Well, readings are tricky, Howie. Not only do the writers have to read well, they also have to come in under the time limit. Remember last year, when Susie nearly lost The Golden Pencil by a pesky second?

HL: I do! Remind our viewers what happened, though.

PL: She managed to get in under the wire by eliminating a metaphor. It was close, but I’m glad to see she’s recovered from that.

HL: Shh. She’s starting.

PL: Indeed.

HL: Oh! Oh! She’s killing it! She’s bringing it home! She’s…she’s…singing!

PL: Indeed, Howie, she is! Few writers would dare to try out their tremulous vocal chords on an audience so attuned to monotone, but Susie has her eyes closed, she’s pulling out all the stops, she’s dancing over the notes with a confidence that must be borne of a million repetitions and rehearsals. You know, when writers write, they don’t often imagine music. But this one clearly has, and we are PROUD of her.

HL: I can’t believe the crowd. They are going nuts. They are bolt-forward in their chairs. Some are swaying! They are under her spell! She’s in! She’s in! Susie is bound to take home the Golden Pencil for a second year in a row!

PL: Just look at Coach Kirkland, there on the sidelines. He’s crying. We never see this from a writerly coach, never.

HL: Chuck can just sit down, can’t he, Phil?

PL: Well, no. Even though Susie has clearly won the Golden Pencil, Chuck still needs to show up. He’ll win points towards the lifelist series of Most Readings Read At.

HL: Phil, that was a moment to beat all. I’m quaking. I think Susie’s set a new bar for readings.

PL: I think so too. Let’s ink it right now. Susie Weekins has just created the literary reading version of figure skating’s Salchow. Tune in to our web site to vote for what we should call it. And tune in next week as ESPN 2 covers the Wine Tasting 2015 competition, a feat of tongues and nasal passages that will have you riveted to the screen. Thanks for joining us. I’m Phil Liggett.

HL: And I’m Howie Long. And we’re signing off. Good night, all.

Thanks to Ana Maria Spagna, Nancy Rawles, and Kelly Davio for planting the seed for this post. And to Samantha Updegrave, who knows why. 


A User’s Guide to Post-Residency*

The Daily Life Text

*Or, any intense period of Doing the Things You Love to Do Most.

1. Upon landing at home airport, immediately feel lost and bereft due to one of the three following reasons:

a. Am no longer scheduled to the eyeballs and therefore have no idea where to go.

b. Am too used to having only two places to go (home, school) and am therefore boggled by many choices (BAGGAGE CLAIM? GROUND TRANSPORT? BATHROOM? WATER FOUNTAIN? SNACK STAND???)

c. Am ridiculously hungry due to morning spent mooning around friend’s apartment, wondering where other friends are and then realizing they are nowhere near because residency is over.

2. In automobile home from airport, sulk because spousal unit is not a writer and therefore must be terrible company. Anyway, spousal unit is in midst of annoying in-car-speaker-abled conference call and cannot hear you talk anyway. Put hands over ears.

3. Upon arrival at home, spread baggage all over kitchen. Refuse to clean up. Sprawl on couch, morose. Remove brassiere without taking off shirt because cannot be arsed with anything. Pull blanket over self; stare at ceiling.

4. Remember have tons of lavender souvenirs in suitcase and therefore suitcase must smell like Whidbey Island. Open suitcase. Ignore spousal unit’s cry of joy that you are actually doing laundry so soon after arrival. Root through all clothing until find all lavender souvenirs. Leave mess. Bury face in lavender things.

5. Eat egg salad for dinner.

6. Remember that have not watched TV in 10 days. Therefore am clearly in need of 6-hour marathon of Inspector Lynley reruns. (Based on Whidbey-Island-based novelist Elizabeth George‘s mystery series!)

7. Run out of Inspector Lynley reruns.

8. Eat egg salad for breakfast.

9. Check facebook, Twitter madly for news of Whidbey MFA friends. Remember newly-downloaded Instagram. Check that, too.


10. Set up computer at kitchen bar because cannot stand sight of office.

11. Scribble in awesome new diary from friend.

12. Feel better.

13. Peek at deadlines. Feel immediately worse.

14. Get hiccups. Postpone conference call by three minutes due to hiccups. Hiccup through conference call.

15. Peek into office. See souvenirs from graduation, letters from friends, last Sunday’s NYT magazine.

16. Feel better. Answer e-mails.

17. Clear wall for scenes from needs-dusting-off novel.

18. Send query letters.

19. Put away suitcase. Do laundry. Imagine spousal unit’s joy.

20. Feel better.



Why is Publishing so important?

The Daily Life Text

On August 10 I’ll graduate from my MFA program.

Lots of folks are saying really nice things: “Congratulations!” And “You must be so proud!” Or “You must be happy to have all that work behind you.”

But none of these really resonate, because, well, I didn’t embark on this program to get a degree. I embarked on this program to improve my writing, so that, in its long, novel format, it could be published. (I’m already published in short form.)

Put another way, although I’m not in academia and probably won’t ever go for a tenure-track position (never say never), I’m feeling the “publish or perish” pressure.

Put yet another way, the degree is nice. I worked hard and made friends and am part of a community. But I won’t really feel like I’ve done anything until my work is on the shelf. (Obviously I’m not debunking whatever an MFA feels like for anyone else. We all have our own races to run.)

I’m thinking about this a lot lately, as I query my manuscript. As I’m researching possible outlets, I see agent, or editor, blogs that pass on valuable knowledge, and author blogs that do the same. These things are a veritable fount of warmth and happines. Like, isn’t it wonderful, that there are these people out there, who love books and words and who spent their every waking minute thinking about the way we tell stories? Isn’t it amazing to be, however tangential, a part of a community like this?

And, earlier in my MFA career, I met an editor who started her own literary society for writers of children’s and young-adult books. And I met a woman who worked tirelessly to build a place where writers could feel more connected to each other. And I met another editor who gave so freely of herself that, whenever I called on her after the residency, she responded. And published writers who consistently answer calls for help from writers like me. Agent recommendations, proofing query letters, general brainstorming.

Like, how lucky I am, to be loosely connected to this group of folks who think this way, and who want others to read and gain just a little bit of whatever they’re feeling!

And then, right on the heels of that warm fuzzy stuff, “I can’t wait to be able to pass on knowledge like this. I can’t wait to be able to publish, so that I can speak from the bookshelf, from a position of full experience. I can’t wait to inspire others to love craft, and words, and books.”

Last semester, Doyce joined our MFA program. The husband of a close friend, and now, a good friend in his own standing, he was on the fence about the residency. Early on, we had this exchange:

“Don’t make yourself responsible for my happiness with this thing,” I tell Yi Shun while we walk along the shore to the beach house she and a few other students have rented. “That’s not going to work out.”

“For me?” she asks.

“Also you.”

Doyce is not going to believe this, but I have been thinking about this since we had the exchange. Mostly because something was off. Not the part where I’m anxious about Doyce wanting to enjoy the residency, Get Something out of it, maybe even like it enough to sign on to the program–all that is true. But it was something about the motivation. Why was I so anxious? What did it mean?

Earlier this week, as I was sending out some queries, I finally figured it out. I wanted Doyce to join us in part because I knew he could add to us. I knew his knowledge and experience, which is so different from so many students’–and even most instructors’–in our program would only make us better, as a body. We could learn from him, and he might even learn from us.

The pressure to see Doyce happy with this thing came from wanting to build a better community.

Ultimately, when I publish, I’ll be that much better equipped to be a better part of the community. With an MFA under my belt, I am a step closer. I think.

That’s why graduation matters.



Watch the Clock!

The Daily Life Text

As a student body, we’ve been thinking a lot about timing.

Why? Because every residency, we have something along the order of five readings. That’s five nights during which students spend another hour or so listening to valued fellow students and guest faculty read from their works. We do this at Whidbey for several reasons:

  1. Reading to a group is a professional skill, one which every student should have well under their belts.
  2. Reading your work out loud is yet another way of getting to know it, inside and out.
  3. Reading your work out loud is a gift to the audience: It’s rare that folks get to hear an author’s words from their own lips. It’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly on either end.
  4. Getting to hear the pros gives us something to aspire to.

The flip, less-sexy-but-equally-important side to each of these reasons is time limits. Each reader is given an allotted amount of time, and each reader should stick to that allotted time, regardless of whether or not the readers feels the need to make a tremendously long explanation to his or her work. Here are the reasons why:

  1. It’s only fair to the other readers, that you each get the same allotment of time.
  2. If  you need to explain your work and the explanation takes up the bulk of your allotted time, then the piece needs more work.
  3. Readings are meant to whet the listener’s appetite for more from the writer, that’s all. Complete stories are nice, but hardly necessary.

At NILA, it’s students who run the readings. We’ve come up with several ideas, some of which were submitted by faculty, to encourage folks to stick to their time limits. They are:

  • Water pistols
  • Burp guns (both ping-pong and marshmallow)
  • Gigantic “Gong Show” type gong
  • Big hook, a la the old vaudeville shows
  • Swelling music that eventually drowns out the speaker, a la award shows

Hm. I like all of these. What’s your choice for encouraging folks to keep to time limits?


All Hail the Residency

The Daily Life Text

Whidbey Writers’ Workshop MFA Residency, Winter 2013, is over.

I want to talk about a few awesome things that happened this time around.

We acquired two new awesome students, Doyce Testerman and William Xander.

Another good friend, Chels Knorr, had an essay accepted for publication in an anthology.

We had the best student readings, in my opinion, that I’ve heard in my six residencies there.

An acquaintance read an entirely new work about a subject she’s never been able to talk or write about before.

And we had the following awesome people speak, among others:

Knute Berger

Jim Lynch

Jennifer Basye Sanders

Kristen Lamb

And this happened:

Yeah. That’s pretty good, right?

Onwards, and forwards, to another semester of writing–and a completed thesis.

P.S. The winner of the contest last month is Jim Anderson. Jim, I will send you some Swedish Fish. 🙂

On Whidbey

The Daily Life Text

On the island I am covered in words. They are pestery things: it’s a little bit like the imagery and acquaintance conjured up when he said he woke up “covered in a Wookie coat” of mosquitos.

This is not as bad as a Wookie coat of mosquitos, but these words, they pique and annoy. I wake up with them rolling around my brain, which means I wake up feeling like I’ve been in a bowling alley all night. I roll over and notice I’ve burritoed myself into the covers of the ginormous bed I’m in here at the guest house we’re renting.

As I’m trying to get out, I push away the novel I’m studying for my thesis class, it being what I love to fall asleep to, and the crinkling noise tells me that I’ve rolled onto the jewelry catalog a friend has brought for me to peruse. I love the words in this catalog; they are throwaway ones, meant to evoke orgies of consumption.

The walk to the bathroom is only a few feet–two steps and I’m there; another step and I’m in front of the sink–but I can’t seem to make the distance without a book in my hand. I grope around under the covers–ah! there it is, the slim volume of poetry I’ve become interested in lately–and crack open a random page as I take the one, two, three steps to the sink.

The vanity to the sink is large enough that I can set the book down while I’m brushing my teeth and washing my face, but I’m mid-poem now, and I don’t want to end it yet, so I stand in front of the mirror with the book in one hand, and try with the other to squeeze the toothpaste and brush my teeth while I’m reading the poem. It’s not a pretty sight, but it is a nice poem.

I cannot do this while I am washing my face.

Today we are on day 7. Yesterday was graduation day. It was lovely and I cried a lot, but that’s OK. I was really moved by the charge to the students and our friend Mandy’s response, and I it occurred to me that maybe the reason I get so weepy at these things is because we all know what the graduates have been to to get to this culmination of skill and diligence.

It’s a gorgeous morning out as I type, and I’m feeling the need to get up and about. I have a thesis meeting in a half hour or so, and then tomorrow I have to go back to managing the workday as well as managing my own writing.

In short, it’s just another workweek. But here, the work feels like a definite unwelcome intrusion.