Some thoughts on the eve of submitting a book proposal

When I was in grad school, I got a small stipend to put together the alumni newsletter. There was a guy who (twice) sent in an update about his life as a real estate agent, noting that, though his career had veered away from writing, he still used his MFA-acquired-skills to edit the community wine newsletter.

As a judgmental and ambitious twenty-four-year old, this distressed me. I was spending thousands of dollars on my degree. I had made what felt like significant sacrifices to join this program and I shuddered to imagine that a day might come where I would be content to use that expensive and coveted degree to edit a wine newsletter. For years the fear of becoming wine-newsletter-guy motivated me to put aside time to start a book, even when there were more immediately-pleasurable ways to spend my days.

As a much more pragmatic thirty-four-year old, I now understand that this guy was on to something. He surely has a nicer home than me–and earns more money. And if he’s still interested in writing, he might have the resources to take a significant chunk of time off work, or even to retire early. And there’s the obvious truth that deciding not to be a writer isn’t such a bad thing. It’s probably good! My non-writer friends report watching high-quality television shows in the evening, with no overwhelming sense of guilt about how much unpaid work they did or did not complete that day. That kind of evening sounds nice.

An eerie post-apocalyptic haze has settled over Vancouver these past few days. Forest fires north of us have turned the sky an unnatural yellow, and when the evening breeze finally stirs the air, I taste campfire on my tongue. Roscoe and I hunker down in the living room, swatting at flies and trying to determine the least unpleasant hour for a walk. At night, I wake up before dawn scratching at large red welts, tuning my ears to the mosquito’s distinct whine, wondering if it’s worth turning on all the lights and hunting the bastard down. In case you are wondering about the life of a writer hoping to sell her first book, this is what it’s like.

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I guess it’s fitting that these days of waiting have the mythical qualities of purgatory. I started this book proposal in April. I thought I’d be done by the end of May. But in fact—after many revisions, false starts, one total do-over, and sixty-seven pages—I finished in the morning on Friday, July 3. And then I sat around wondering what to do. Continue reading

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simply dig: thinking about the stories we tell ourselves

As I’ve indicated in earlier posts, I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how and why we tell our own love stories. And as I write, I keep coming back to a particular moment.

The night before my college graduation, J came to visit. He was not my boyfriend then. I had not seen him in a year and a half.

Four of us were sleeping in my dorm room that night: me in my bed, my roommate Katie and her soon-to-be husband Joel in her bed, and J on the floor in a sleeping bag. After a celebratory dinner with all of our parents, after settling into our respective spots sometime around midnight and turning out the lights, I realized I wasn’t going to sleep. The person I’d spent the past sixteen months dreaming about was in my room, and I could hear him shifting, still awake, the rustle of his skin against the nylon bag. Every dream I’d had about him been the same: his body next to mine under the duvet, his chin against my clavicle, the weight of a leg pressed upon my abdomen. And each time I’d wake up angry. Angry with the duvet for covering only me. Angry with myself for wanting him there. But then he’d written a letter saying he was coming to visit. This person who hadn’t even attended his own graduation wanted to come to mine. This person who I thought I’d never see again was lying on my dorm room floor.

I knew I should sleep—my family was arriving at eight the next morning—but instead, I stood up and whispered to him, “Do you want to go for a walk?”

We spent the night wandering the campus. He told me about his mud house in the Andes, about how he passed the days hiking through the forest above his home, about amoebas, about weeks of eating only rice and eggs and beans. And for the first time I could see that I’d been living in his past, in the life he’d left behind. What could he care about the ordinary world I still inhabited? The content of my letters, which before had seemed mundane, now also seemed childish.

So when we were sitting on the track sometime before dawn and he said, “I think about you, a lot,” it felt like someone had dropped a rock on one side of the scale in my stomach. And that mantra I’d been chanting—”Grad school in Florida. Grad school in Florida.”—just slid off the other side. It was the mantra I’d been using to steady myself, to remember that his visit was just a visit, not an opportunity to get distracted from the exciting new life I’d worked so hard to arrange for myself. But even in my unbalanced state, I remember thinking: this will make a good story someday.

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some sloppy and unrelated thoughts on love and writing

Today it took three presses of the sleep button combined with Roscoe’s cold nose on my shoulder to motivate myself to throw off the duvet and put my bare feet on the floor. I was forty minutes late to my regular Friday morning writing session, and even after employing  “the Klonsky method”–my friend Dave swears by a precise combination of caffeine and sugar (the mocha) to kick-start the brain–I still couldn’t direct my thoughts enough to put together a proper blog post. So I’ve given up. I’ve accepted that my mind, like most of downtown Vancouver, is going to be occupied by low-altitude haze today.

With that said, I have some assorted thoughts:

Number one, I got a nice e-mail from the folks at Folio last week, and I thought I’d pass it along to interested writers. Folio is a literary journal published at my alma mater, American University. Last year, in addition to poetry and fiction, they started publishing nonfiction, including a short essay I wrote called “On Love and Naming”. Now they’re looking for more nonfiction, so if you’re interested, submit. The staff is fantastic: supportive and easy to work with. They’re also running their first-ever fiction contest this year. So if you’re a fiction writer, enter! If you’re interested in reading, rather than writing, subscribe! It’s a steal.

In other–totally unrelated–news, I stumbled across an intriguing concept today: The Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is a touring exhibition of donated items: artifacts that remained after romantic love ended, what the curators call “the ruins of relationship.” From their website:

Whatever the motivation for donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, or simple curiosity – people embraced the idea of exhibiting their love legacy as a sort of a ritual, a solemn ceremony.  Our societies oblige us with our marriages, funerals, and even graduation farewells, but deny us any formal recognition of the demise of a relationship, despite its strong emotional effect.  In the words of Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theater.”

I’ve been reading Jeffrey Eugenides’s new book The Marriage Plot which quotes extensively from Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. And now that Barthes’s book is on my radar it seems to be popping up everywhere. The idea of love–and particularly the breaking of a relationship–as something that contains an element of theater makes sense to me. One item from the online exhibition is an old Nokia cell phone with the caption, “He gave me his cell phone so I couldn’t call him any more.”

In my first year composition classes, I ask my students to write an analysis of an artifact somehow related to their education. The students who really invest in the assignment inevitably return good results: what the red engineer’s jackets suggest about the role of gender in the engineering faculty, how the ads the university uses to attract new students sell a lifestyle rather than an education, the conflicting messages student dining facilities convey about health and eating. I suspect my students would be pretty terrible at writing about artifacts related to love–they are a smart but often sentimental lot–but I love the idea of performing a similar analysis of love’s artifacts.

My favorite artifact from the online exhibition is a Slovenian bread bowl. The jilted lover writes,

You wanted me to bake bread. Because a woman kneading dough is so erotic, isn’t she? You probably thought I’d work up such a sweat that it would drip from my breasts directly into the bowl.

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