How to survive a book tour

This thing that takes up your whole life, your whole body, your whole mind; it’s all your dreams, and then suddenly […] it’s going to be just one little tiny tile on iTunes, one little tiny click. It’s not gonna be this thing that’s my feeling of my entire insides and my whole soul shape. It’s just gonna be a little square that people can choose. And that’s a really awful feeling.

Jill Soloway on making Afternoon Delight. On Fresh Air

About a month before my book came out I wrote Soloway’s quote in my journal. I was hoping, I guess, to keep things in perspective. Publishing a book I’d been working on for eight years felt enormous, but I wanted to remember that it was also small. It was a tiny tile on Amazon. It was a set of bound pages that would, for a time, live on a bookshelf in a bookstore and then, eventually, be taken home to put on another shelf or, if it didn’t sell, sent back to the publisher’s warehouse. It would collect dust. It would get recycled. Yes, it might mean something to someone—if I was lucky, if I had done a good job, it might mean a lot to someone—but it would never mean as much to anyone as the writing of it had meant to me.

So I tried to prepare for this inevitable shift in perspective, for the moment the book would feel small. I waited for it. At the height of book tour chaos—when I was stuck in Detroit at midnight with no way to make it to Austin for the class I was supposed to teach the next morning—I even longed for it. I was sure that, even though it felt awful to Jill Soloway, it wouldn’t feel so bad to me. I was sure that seeing my book take its place amongst a zillion other books would be fine—because I was ready, already, to get started on a second book. There was work to do.

But before I could do that work, I had to write a bunch of articles and do a lot of interviews and go to a handful of cities and launch this thing that is in fact the shape of my soul into the world to live its own unpredictable life without me.

I’m not sure how anyone “keeps things in perspective” while talking about this part of her soul all day every day for three weeks straight. I don’t know what I was thinking. Or I do. I was thinking I could master my emotions. Because it’s easy to convince yourself that mastering your emotions is within your domain when you spend your days doing interviews about “choosing” to fall in love. Of course you can choose to glide right along, to believe that you will do the strange work of distilling years of reflection into four-minute local tv interviews and then return, focused and unharmed, to the daily work of being a writer.

There was, for the record, one perfect night at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. It was the official day of publication (June 27) and the room was full and the crowd asked interesting questions and they laughed at all of my jokes. I felt perfectly self-possessed and proud of the thing I had made—as if this one evening was the rightful culmination of years of work and study. My partner and my best friend and my agent and my editor and my whole team at Simon & Schuster all stood in the crowd, along with some old friends I hadn’t seen in years. At the end, folks lined up to have me sign their books—which I knew they would do (I’d bought a box of pens just for that purpose!) but still it felt surreal. I was scared of misspelling someone’s name, of talking to one person for too long or not long enough, of seeming anything other than completely grateful that someone wanted to pay for this thing that was shaped like my soul.

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I knew as soon as it was over that no event would ever go quite so perfectly, but that sense of possibility—that I was becoming the person I’d set out to be the day I first applied to do an MFA fifteen years ago—felt exciting. And this possibility is, I think, the central hope and promise of a book tour.

On the whole, the tour was equal parts fun and uncomfortable. Starting about two weeks before I left, I had a hard time sleeping. I could only make it partway through a meal without feeling nauseous. I eventually gave up and just ate and slept when I could and I was surprised to find that worked okay. Continue reading

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on the problem of wanting

For weeks I’ve wanted to write about all that’s happened in my life in 2015, but I couldn’t find a good way to get at it. I keep thinking back to a rainy Sunday night, about a year ago, when I met two friends for dinner. One was pregnant and doing interesting research for her PhD in linguistics. She and her husband were thinking about buying a condo or moving to a new, baby-friendly apartment. The other, a psychologist, I hadn’t seen since August, when she was in the midst of a messy break up with a not-at-all-nice guy. But by March she was living happily with her new boyfriend—a man who seemed unbelievably successful and kind and good for her. A man she met the day after her break up. She told us about helping to raise his two kids, and her summer plans to attend conferences and visit family.

As they talked, I sipped wine and asked questions and then, when it was my turn, I realized I had nothing to say. “Um,” I tried, “I’ve been on two dates with a guy who seems kind of smart and fun, but we still haven’t scheduled a third.” I searched my life for something: work was the usual mound of ungraded papers and, yes, I was still tooling away at the same book I’d been tooling away at for years. No real travel plans, no visitors. No weekend getaways.

I woke up grouchy the next day, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. After ending a serious relationship a few years before, I’d worked hard to make my life exactly what I wanted it to be. I liked my job, and writing, and walking around the neighborhood with Roscoe. I had time for skiing and climbing and eating Thai take-out with my best friends.

But when I had to describe that life to someone I hadn’t seen in a while, the straightforward sameness of my days suddenly felt embarrassing. My close friends were getting married and making babies. I was about to turn 33—my Jesus year!—and, while I was in no rush to procreate, I wanted something to say when people asked how I was, some small miracle. I understood that the upheaval in my friends’ lives was sometimes hard, but, at the time, even having something to struggle with seemed enviable and kind of glamorous.

how I spend much of my time

how I spend much of my time

Now, on the verge of my 34th birthday, I still spend my days the same way I did a year ago. I go to the climbing gym and I grade papers and I eat Thai food from the same restaurant down the block with my same best friends. I walk the dog. And I write. I write whenever I can.

But in some significant ways, my life feels different. Continue reading

dispatch from Sardinia

This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel—nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.

–DH Lawrence, 1921

So far today I haven’t left the premises. Hostel Alghero is a series of small bungalows with a central espresso/wine/Fanta bar and a tiled patio. I sit in the same white plastic chairs that adorn patios in Vancouver. I wonder which countries, if any, don’t have these chairs. Inside, the only noise is the TV that plays pre-MTV-era music videos: Queen and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. There’s a dusty pool table pushed against the wall, some dorm-style tables, a chess board with no apparent pieces. Siesta is running long today.

I planned to get to the beach but a lingering mirto headache has slowed my progress. Mirto is a digestivo—an after dinner liqueur—made from myrtle berries. It tastes bracingly medicinal, like high-end cough syrup—with the same consistency. The Sards serve it straight from the freezer. It’s weird at first, but it grows on you quickly, especially when a glass appears without you asking or really even noticing how it arrived. It seems the line between the recommended amount of mirto and an excessive amount mirto is a fine one.

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I sit on the patio and watch people come and go. And I write. It’s hot still at a quarter to six, but the breeze is stiff and cool. I’m sharing the hostel with my friend Kirsten’s geology field school and as the students filter in from the airport, their loud American voices seem to hang in the air. Some have already been down to the beach or to see the cow that’s slowly rotating on a spit in downtown Fertilia—an area that’s exactly two blocks long and one street wide. They put  up the cow last night as we walked home from dinner. A veal roast, they said, but this beast appears fully grown. We watched them build up the fire from a heaping mound of logs in the street. The musculature wrapping around the bones was deep red and white, as vivid as any classroom anatomy poster. But this cow is spread eagle and pierced sternum to pelvis with a ten-foot steel pole. One end of the spit has been slung to a crank with a bicycle chain.

The camp faculty have talked me into giving a lecture on academic writing and in exchange have plied me with salami and Vermentino. I am certain I’m getting the better end of the deal. It’s such a pleasure to chat about teaching over smoked ricotta and late night mirto. It feels, in fact, like I’ve fallen into someone else’s rhythm, a space that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. Still, it suits me to settle in somewhere.

Everyone asks about my book, which provides good practice pitching it. The faculty tell students not to bother me, then they sit themselves down at my table with a bag of cookies and a jar of Nutella. But I like their company and work is progressing, despite having to reorient myself after only a week away from writing. It’s hard to believe it was only a week. Vancouver life feels far away. I look in the mirror and it takes a moment to see myself there. My face is freckled and my hair is fuzzy and light around the temples. Impossibly, the dimensions of my face seem different. Continue reading

Faking it

When I finally read Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running a couple years ago, I hated it. As you might expect, he talks about running both as a discipline and a metaphor. He outlines his training process for marathons and triathlons and, as he plods along, he considers the relationship between running and writing. I like hearing about other people’s creative processes, and even though Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I particularly liked (and I did really like it), I still thought I might learn something from Murakami. After slogging through 1Q84, I hoped he and I might find some common ground again in the genre of memoir. But no.

Murakami says a few things I completely disagree with, like: “Talent has a mind of its own and wells up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.” And cliché things like, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest.” And smug things like, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” The thing is, running marathons and triathlons is impressive—especially when you start in your late twenties and continue into your sixties. And writing a bunch of highly-acclaimed books with cultish following is also very impressive. But I have a badass friend who regularly runs ultramarathons—and once a hundred miles!—and he’s not nearly so self-satisfied.

Reading What I Talk About felt like an ongoing reminder of my lack of discipline. I thought the book could’ve been subtitled, Why I’m so good at things (and you’re probably not). The fact is, I agree with Murakami on some basic points. I believe dedication will always take you further than talent. I believe in sticking to regular routines and putting writing ahead of other obligations that sometimes seem more important. But, not only did his book not inspire me to write more or better, it actually made me feel a little embittered about the whole process.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

the view from my computer this afternoon.

I say all this because I want to talk about what does work for me, and how I’m hoping to keep motivated without such Herculean smug-guy self-discipline. I much prefer Alain de Botton’s idea: “Work finally begins when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”

When I was a kid, my main (and most loathed) chore was mowing the lawn.

Continue reading

memoir and the space-time continuum

A warning: I’m going to talk about science, physics in particular. I’ve been doing a little reading about time. And when I say little, I mean very little, because I am not a physicist. I’ve only ever taken one physics class, in fact, and that was with Mr. Sheffield, who was also our high school’s resident computer expert. Whenever anyone had a computer problem, they’d come interrupt his class. And since this was 1998 and computers were still rare and somewhat mysterious in my high school (I learned to type on a typewriter in the 10th grade), this meant he was always gone. We spent most of our physics class goofing off and copying each others’ answers to questions about how fast a ball rolls down a ramp. I learned almost nothing.

In other words, this one is a bit messy and convoluted, a messay if ever there was one.

——

So I’ve been reading about time, and in particular about different theories of time, inspired by this very simple post on NPR. And reading about time has got me thinking about memoir. Specifically, why we write memoir. And how memoir functions in the world, for both the writer and reader.

Maybe you’re familiar with the idea of world lines. This one is new to me. Basically, from what I can tell, a world line is the four-dimensional path of an object through space and time. So for example, the computer I’m typing on is three-dimensional. It’s about an inch high, fourteen inches wide, and ten inches deep. The fourth dimension is its existence in a given moment of time. So the moment I bought this computer, it was one distinct four-dimensional object. It had height, width, depth and time (the single moment I opened the box, for example). At the present moment, despite having the same three-dimensional qualities, it is not the same computer. For one, between then and now, Roscoe’s wagging tail has caused a bottle of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale to spill its contents across the keyboard and down onto the logic board. Miraculously, the computer still functions, but as the genius at the Apple shop told me, the computer will never be the same. The computer itself changes, as we humans do, over time. So you can think of the computer as having a unique fourth dimension in each subsequent moment.

The world line idea suggests that time is not linear, but it is in fact just a series of distinct four-dimensional objects that all exist simultaneously. It is only our perception of time that is linear. This is just a theory of course, and there are others out there, but it’s interesting one: that the universe could be made up of an infinite number of four-dimensional objects. You could take each moment of the computer’s existence (and, if you want to get complicated, of the existence of each of its components as raw materials) and pile them up like sand. Continue reading