On Writing: Submission and Rejection

Over the weekend, I cranked out a short (about 600 words) pieces and submitted it to McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. I submitted via email last night and this morning received a quick “no.”

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve submitted or pitched anything and so mostly I’m just proud of myself for jumping back into the game of attempting to write for a known audience. To be honest, I’ve never really pitched and submitted that much: a few contests here and there, a couple of on-line venues, and the alt-weekly where I used to work. But I thought a lot about submitting and pitching. Here’s a thing about the whole process: it can be exhausting. For me, what sometimes happens is that I attempt to cantilever my writing into fitting the guidelines or theme or the voice of the publication (or at least how I perceive the publication). I would see a submission guideline or a contest and think, “well, I can write an essay that would fit that” and then spend a bit of time messing around with an essay I already had or an idea for an essay I already had. For example, I used to receive the This American Life pitch solicitation emails in which they would announce the theme for upcoming episodes and outline what they were looking for. So I’d spend some time mulling it over and considering whether I had some stories or essay ideas. The farthest I ever got was to pitch someone else’s previously published essay. More often than not, with all of these publications, I would end up talking myself out of finishing and submitting or pitching.

It’s hard to live in that headspace of constantly trying to shoehorn your stories and writing into these guidelines and contests. I decided to not do it anymore, to not even think about submitting anywhere. And it was freeing.

After a good, long break from writing in general (not just for publication), I eventually decided that I should write again. I have done so both here on my blog but also, and perhaps more importantly, privately. I say that it is important because I think that it is in the privacy of my own pages that my writing has been most successful. It is in that space where I’m not worried about an audience and publication that I have been able to play with and tease out language and meaning and ideas. When I say that my writing has been “successful” in those spaces, I don’t mean that I have improved or even that my writing as really substantially changed. I have, however, re-gained a certain confidence that I was both in writing for classes in grad school and during my brief foray into the world of submitting and pitching. In my private writing, I have been able to remind myself that I do, in fact, have something, many things to say and that those things are worthy, not because they fit the submission guidelines but because they are unique and authentic. And to a certain extent, this way of being and thinking and writing has carried over into this blog and perhaps, one day, to other places and publication spaces. And if not? Well, that’s ok too.

The piece that I submitted to McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies was an open letter from the Beltway (the interstate highway that encircles DC) to the “People’s Convoy”, which was attempting to shut down the capitol city (which I live just outside of and where I was born and raised) by stopping traffic. They are still around here, staying out here in Maryland at the Hagerstown Speedway.

Here is a small piece of my open letter submission:

“I trade in neither rhyme nor reason. I am multitudinous. I am legion! I am 495 but I am also 95, 295, 395. Are you coming or going? No one knows. And soon neither will you. Are you trying to exit northbound or south? Why are you exiting at all? The exit-stential questions you will ask are only the beginning. I am smoke and mirrors. Soon, you too will find signs for places that only exist in the morning traffic report: the Occoquan Bridge which cannot be spelled much less traversed. This confusion is the nature of my game. I am particularly proud of one of my snarly creations. Like car commuters across US metropolitan regions, they assign it a charming nickname: the ‘mixing bowl’, as if they are trying to convince themselves they are whipping up a batch of cookies rather than fighting for their very humanity.”

I knew that any piece like this would have potentially too many inside references that perhaps only people in this region would understand. It’s a tricky needle to thread (for me anyway) from explaining the context to explaining the joke, which inevitably makes everything fall flat. I remember as a kid hearing the traffic report and it seemed like every single morning cars were backed up to the Occoquan Bridge such that the location (mentioned only against the backbeat thump of traffic helicopter blades and through the hollow almost nasal quality of the reporter speaking through whatever headset they were using in those days) took up mythic proportions. Where was the Occoquan Bridge even? (For the curious, it’s in Virginia and I grew up on the Maryland-side of DC.)

Aside from these issues of the topic and format that I was attempting to write and submit, was the problem that this so-called People’s Convoy is still in this area, they are still protesting. Some threatened to remove the Black Lives Matter paint in downtown DC. Gas prices are rising along with climate change and they were still driving around the beltway. In same ways, the stakes have started to rise in ways that I don’t feel are particularly funny. My heart wasn’t in writing a humor piece about this situation in a way that would be sustainable beyond a tweet or two, much less a whole 600 plus words.

Still, I’m glad I wrote it (or attempted to) and I’m glad I submitted it. (Heck, I’m even glad that they rejected it as the situation with these protestors seems to have grown more tense and less amusing.) Mostly, I’m just glad to be back writing.

Knit and a Flick: The Prestige

Spoilers ahead. If you plan on watching The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan, director), do not read this blog post. My advice if you haven’t already watched it (TL;DR): skip it.

The theoretically cozy brown chair that I choose on the rare occasion when my husband and I watch a movie on the TV by ourselves sits in a corner of the room we call the porch. Behind the chair is a gap where the two walls should meet, comfortable and confident in their right angled relationship. These two walls so not meet. The porch, not a part of the original foundation, seems to have settled awkwardly, sidewise into the earth. The whole room leans away from the kitchen next to it, as if it’s a little embarrassed to be associated with the original, older house or perhaps as if the main house has given it a slight nudge, an older sibling elbowing the younger out of its space. We hope that when we do our renovation, this problem will be remedied. In the meantime, this is why the coziness of the brown chair on the porch is only theoretical.

So it was that a late fall draft slithered into the room when my husband and I settled into watch The Prestige. Our 11 year old was going through a bit of a Christopher Nolan mini-fest. She had watched the movie earlier in the day and thus we still had our rental available. I tucked into the brown chair surrounded by my weapons of anti-draft: a blanket, a steaming cup of turmeric-ginger tea, and a project bag full of knitting with the paper print out of the pattern for the sweater I’m working on slipped into a protective plastic sleeve. I’m a traditionalist who prefers the comfort of a paper pattern over the ease of a digital one. Of course, all of these objects were mostly mental tricks I was playing on myself, trying to create for myself an image of cozy in the face of a drafty reality.

It was a fitting setting, perhaps, to watch The Prestige which is set in 1890s London, a time and place I imagine to be at least somewhat drafty. The movie centers around two magicians, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Boran (Christian Bale) and tells the story of their increasingly volatile competition, each attempting to out-magician the other. Early on, Michael Cane’s voice-over sets up the three acts of a magic trick (which, of course, will mirror the three acts of the narrative of the movie): the pledge, the turn, and the prestige. In the pledge or first act, the magician shows his audience something ordinary such as a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. In the second act or the turn he transforms the ordinary into something extraordinary, often by making it disappear. Lastly, in the prestige, he brings the object back. Dear movie viewer, humor me for a moment whilst I point out the obvious: the arc of the trick mirrors the arc of the narrative of The Prestige (and many other movies and stories).

* * * * * * an interlude * * * * *

I am really struggling to get this post written. The outline and the arc are there. The BIG IDEAS of what I want to say are all laid out, but it’s the sitting down and weaving them together where lies the struggle. Here is where I want to go with this: knitting is more magic than anything in this movie, The Prestige. Here’s how. In the prestige, the magicians aim to convince their audience that an object, an animal, a whole human has disappeared and then re-appeared elsewhere. In the end, one of the magicians is able to create this “illusion” through use of a machine (created by Nikola Tesla, who appears as a wacky inventor in the film) which materially recreates the object in question. The other magician has been able to create the illusion because he is a twin. In other words, there have always been two of him, or so Nolan would have us believe. Two of each person: one set created by a man’s machine and the other pair created in their mother’s body. Each. Is not without their problems. The one created by the machine must be killed at each performance lest, I suppose, the entire of London begin to fill up with Robert Angiers. For the pair created by nature, each must live what one refers to as a “half life”; in hiding or disguise half of the time and then living the life of one man, the magician Alfred Boran, the other half of the time. But they’re fine with that. That the narrative relies heavily on the trope that twins are inherently freakish or creepy or half creatures is only one way in which it is problematic.

But here’s the rub: knitting actually does recreate a second (sometimes nearly identical although one could argue that it’s the differences that make the second one truly special and magical) object. The choice of word the word in Psalm 139 is particularly interesting and, dare I say, intentional: “You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.” Initially, the prototype only exists in the pattern-makers mind until he or she creates the object. The pattern-maker then writes down how the object is made. I, the knitter, then follow the pattern to re-create the object. Boom. There. The a copy of the original object is re-created and we now have two of them.

But perhaps it is too dangerous to equate crafts, which are usually women’s work, with magic. History tells us that women who appear to dabble in magic are not always treated kindly.

And yet, in The Prestige, men freely mingle science (Tesla and his machine) with magic. Has so much changed since 2006 that blurring the boundaries between science and magic seems so much more dangerous now than it did then? I do not think so. Pandemic or no, it has always been dangerous to suggest that science involves the same sort of trickery as a magic show.

It is chilly again in my house today. The cold dampened by the rain outside. And the sweater I had been knitting in front of that movie many months ago is complete and set on my dresser for me to wear on just such a day as today. In the interval I’ve completed various other items: socks mostly but also hats and a cowl and I’ve started a few others. Each object started as an idea in another person’s mind and etched its way through hands and heads to emerge from my own needles. In each case, I’ve never met the original maker in real life and yet I’ve been given a glimpse into who they are through their work. And therein, perhaps, lies part of the magic of knitting.

The size of things

My kitchen is small. Somehow, we’ve all — all five of us plus the two dogs — managed to be and get fed out of it for the last seven or so years including coming up on two years of almost every meal, every day for all of us. OK, yes, we got take out some of the time.

Last night, I made one of my favorite meals to cook: chicken katsu. It involves much handling of raw chicken. It needs to be cut and pounded out before being seasoned a dredged, in turn, through flour, egg, and panko bread crumbs. But, I have it down to a system now. There’s the parchment lined baking sheet for the coated breasts to rest and even a spot (over the edge of the kitchen sink, raw meat side up) where I place the plastic wrap after each filet is pounded out. Last night, Ms11yo came into the kitchen to wash her hands and I warned her, sharply, to watch out for all the raw chicken hot spots and snapped at her that maybe she should wash her hands in the bathroom. Not my proudest moment.

It’s time for a change.

This fall we stayed for a few days in a rental house for a family gathering. It was a moderately sized place but it had a more average-sized kitchen than our own and, let me tell you, it was lovely. Amongst other things, we made pie. I rolled out crusts on one counter whilst Ms8yo peeled apples on another and my husband sliced them in yet another spot. Later on, Ms11yo, who usually doesn’t partake in much baking at home, made some lovely lemon poppy seed quick breads. Turns out, it’s probably not that she doesn’t like to cook and bake, it’s just that we don’t have enough room for all of our culinary ambitions.

This is more or less the extent of my counter space. I enjoy laminating dough for croissants but it is perhaps one of the more challenging things to do in a small space. Our contractor gave us this tape measure the first time we met him. I now use it to measure out dough when I’m rolling it out. It serves as a reminder of the bigger things to come.

We have been planning our kitchen remodel for a while now. We have an architect and contractor picked out and we’ve been going through rounds of design options. It’s a slow process, made slower, it seems by the pandemic.

It’s a strange quirk of the human brain, I think, that creates a narrative around ways to acceptable certain, unchangeable conditions. “This small space is fine. It challenges me to be innovative in how I use it.” To the point where I almost convince myself that I’m a better cook because of the small space rather than in spite of it. I’ve come to think of it as my little space of refuge in our house at the end of the day. Of course, the underlying subtext is that I, as the mother, am seeking some sort of refuge from my kids and family at the end of the day. Plug my headphones in, focus in on cooking in this small space, my kids and husband just beyond the walls doing their own things. Staying in a rental for a few nights reminded me that this is, in fact, not how I truly think about myself and my kids and family. I don’t want to escape away from them into this small space and activity. This was the narrative that I had made to make the situation acceptable.

Seems unjust that a mushroom could grow so large in the space outside my kitchen. But perhaps it’s an apt metaphor for what can happen with more space? More growth?

Of course, now I wish I could snap my fingers and it would be done. I know that one day, I’ll look back at this time which feels glacial right now and in my retrospective timeline it will feel like the change from small to big was a blink, nothing more than a closing of eyelids and a re-opening. Mr3yo will likely not even remember “small kitchen”.

I think of our house and even the kitchen as “cozy” right now. And it calls to mind a sort of closeness between family members within that coziness. Is it possible that having more space will mean greater closeness within our family? It remains to be seen. I’ll post here once it happens.

November 19, 2021

It’s chilly here today: mid 40s or so. But sunny and dry. The leaves, a lively yellow dipping into dusty brown sprinkled with red, scratch, scratch against the pavement. Mr3yo threw his matchbox car (which fit so neatly inside his hand!) into those one of those piles. Which one? Certain losses must just be accepted.

I’m hibernation ready: sourdough starter at a gradual bubble in a mason jar crowded in between empty egg cartons and bread baskets full of not-bread on top of the fridge. I’m a sourdough newb. A few weeks ago, I was all: “I’m supposed to feed this now? What does sourdough starter eat? How often?” Now I’ve grown accustomed to knowing the hunger signs and comforted by the easy ritual of weighing out water and flour. The rhythm of the baking is what still eludes me. How do I slow down my brain to thinking in terms of days and overnights to double in size while, on the highway outside of my bedroom window, the cars are zero to sixty in seconds? I know it will come but for the time being, I page through books and websites, flipping and scrolling back and forth, watching the clock. I’d like to have bread on Sunday. But before you know it, it’s Saturday and I should have started the process two days ago. (Not really. But you get the point. I hope.)

The yogurt is coming easier, as long as I have whole milk stocked somewhere in the fridge. I know the easy rhythm of scorching and cooling, sterilizing and incubating. I guess I’m more of a bacteria girl than a yeast one although I’m not sure that’s something I should admit.

I’ve heard tell of people who have kept yeasts or other cultures for years or even generations. My husband studied yeast in a laboratory his first job out of college. He’s dubious about how long these sourdough strains or yogurt cultures have been around. But maybe a home isn’t a lab or a lab isn’t a home. Maybe yeasts need a less sterile environment and a lot of love?

When I lived in Thailand, along the Thai-Burma border, I visited a house where the family distilled rice whiskey. The distillery was an elaborate series of bamboo poles and pots and fire. The woman who was running it showed me the cake of yeast that she used to create the alcohol: a small meringue-like lump, hard and light. The outer shell yielded to reveal a mushy inside inside. I don’t know how long she’d had that strain, but I know that she had carried it from her home village in Karenni State to where we met in the distillery in the refugee camp she was calling home, at least temporarily, in Thailand. And here I am, trying to keep mine alive through the winter on top of my fridge.

There’s something to all this: the meringue, the mousse-like consistency of my starter, the sweet smell of a well fed yeast, the things we choose to carry and the things we lose in a pile of leaves. But I’m quickly losing daylight and my mind is heavy. I’ll make sense of it all. Another day.

Writing in the time of C19

Yesterday, I wrote about how I miss writing. So here I am, back for more, searching for answers about what writing does (and does not) do for me. Why should I do it? Why should I not do it?

A few weeks ago, a friend (Sarah Smarsh, who wrote the book Heartland, which everyone should read) texted me about a magazine she’d seen at her local co-op in Kansas. I miss co-ops, which seemed to be much more of a part of life when I lived in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Would I give up the little local Asian and Central American groceries stores up the street from me? Probably not, but it sure would be nice to have both. The magazine was Taproot, one that, as it turns out, I’d been following for a while on IG. But Sarah’s text brought it back into my current (albeit narrow) depth of field: “very kid-centric with projects that reminded me of you and your kiddos,” she texted.

The tag-line reads, “Inspiration for makers, doers, and dreamers.” A few weeks later, I bit the bullet and subscribed.

My first issue arrived yesterday.

It looks like many issues of Taproot have a knitting pattern included. This new cast on isn’t from Taproot but is just a project (a short sleeve sweater for my daughter) that I happen to have on my needles right now. I knew the stars (or maybe the gluten strands) were in alignment when my first issue of Taproot arrive just as my first sourdough starter was getting going (in the mason jar above).

I like receiving and having new things and especially things as satisfying as magazines. I used to subscribe to a fair number of them, or at least periodically (pun intended) picked them up at bookstores (or co-ops!). But it’s been a while. Yeah, it’s been in part of the pandemic has meant that I’ve been lingering less often in front of magazine racks, but it’s also been a while since I’ve received magazines at home just because, well, life. And, perhaps, because it has felt like between my phone and my iPad, I seemingly have access to more of this type of content than I could ever possibly consume. Of course, it’s not the same, but I don’t always know that.

So when I ripped open the heavy brown packaging on the latest (and my first) issue, I have to admit that my excitement was laced with trepidation. Why? This is part of what I want to explore as a writer and reader.

I just happen to be working on creating a sourdough starter this week. (For the curious: it turns out that even on top of my fridge, my kitchen might be a little too cool most of the time to really get it going. I might have to utilize my incubator from time to time.)

First, as a writer. For many years of post-graduate school magazine consumption, I read magazines (really any form of literature and written media) with at least 57% (give or take) of my brain preoccupied with, “Should I pitch a story here?” And then I’d run through different possible story ideas. Would it be a good fit? Should I? How would I do that with this magazine? Most of the time, none of these thoughts would actually lead to any pitches or stories, and yet they occupied enough space to intrude upon any potential enjoyment or edification that I might get from consuming the words in front of me.

What I don’t want is to fall back into that way of thinking. I want to be able to reclaim simple enjoyment (or edification) or, perhaps best of all, connection through reading.

Which leads me to the second part: examining why I feel trepidations around paging through a new magazine or piece of written media as a reader. I think it comes down, in part to this. Even as I was tearing open the thick brown mailer to reach the prize inside, I was mentally placing armor around my heart and mind. This is armor that I have unconsciously built up over years and it is armor that has, generally, served me well. In what way? So much of media that I have consumed, both actively and passively, creates a glossy image of life that is as hard to deny as it is hard to obtain. The images of ease and happiness, of deliciously seductive flatness are magnetic. And this attraction inevitably leads me down the road of comparison which can only end up in a quagmire of judgment, of both self and other, but once I’m in that state of mind, does it really matter where it is directed?

Would this experience of consuming lead to more of this comparison, judgment and negativity? Ergo: an armor of cynicism, of distancing myself from what is being said on the page, of dissecting and judging it in a way that prevents me from getting to the phase of comparison and dissatisfaction. But what does that armor do as a reader? Takes some (all?) of the potential for connection.

Still, I read on. I started with an essay by Sarah Kerch Gaffney “Flour, Needles, Soil, Pen.” I bake, I knit, I garden, I write all. So it felt a good place to start. In spite of my trepidation that I would find something that would shine a light on these things that I also love to do in such a way to, at the very least, spur some annoyance and at worst cultivate a judgmental attitude, I found the exact opposite. It was a lovely piece about how we do these things to ground us especially through grief. These activities of the hands bring us a little grace. And I felt that I had had a lovely, relatable exchange with a kindred spirit who I had never met and likely never would.

The visual art is charming, cozy, and comforting too.

I’ve skimmed over a few other pieces in the magazine. In more than one place, I’ve seen writers (Farai Herreld and Alyson Morgan stood out) waxing eloquent about some of these very issues: the responsibility of creators to share the messy failures and difficulties alongside (or maybe even in place of) the glossy images. I found a certain acknowledgement of how hard it can be to live by your convictions.

The pull quote (from Farai Herreld) above: “I think that simple living bloggers can be unrealistic sometimes with the things they share. Like they make everything seem perfect and don’t share the reality of how challenging this work is. Sure, it looks beautiful when I talk about collecting eggs from my coop and having my pretty gardens. But if I’m not sharing about chicken poop in my hair and other aspects and struggles, then people who don’t have the background will not be able to understand the hard work involved and can get disillusioned with it when they try.”

I feel buoyed by this and these words, in the hope that, even in the seeming isolation of a pandemic, that there are like minded people out there with similar struggles and concerns and that, somehow, our paths will cross at just the right time.

On (not) writing

I miss writing.

Last time I posted here, it was post celebrating the 35 posts I’d done over the course of something like seven or eight weeks. I had set a goal to write on the regular and I had achieved it. I’d hoped that this streak would kick start me sitting down and writing as regularly on a larger piece of fiction that I’ve had kicking the hard wires of my brain and the hardwires of my actual computer a little less.

It wasn’t to be so.

Part of me thought that with shifting my kids from homeschool to the virtual option offered by my district would open up daily writing sessions for me. This hasn’t materialized.

I haven’t given up hope that these dream writing sessions will happen, but I will admit that I skimmed over bits and pieces of the long essay “A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf. In it, she argues that women need space and time to write. I’ve always cringed away from this sort of idea, so deeply, perhaps, engrained in my neural pathways the idea that only real work deserves time and money and only real work involves producing, not creating.

I remember I once heard a writer equate one book-length project to raising one child. This idea was then framed by the speaker with the further thought that each child is one less book and vice versa. I cringe away from this idea too: that I have to somehow choose one over the other. Children or creativity? You can’t have both. And, of course, it’s obvious which I would choose, which I have chosen.

What about all the books unwritten and the pieces of art unproduced? Or children not raised?

And, yet, here I am. From time to time I convince myself, very nearly, that the novel is percolating, as I bring the 3yo to the toilet or help the 8 year old through her math, or stir a pot of soup. And perhaps it is. I also know (from experience) that the real writing truly only happens when I’m sitting down and writing, undistracted. I know that it will never happen until, maybe, my children have grown up. My prefrontal cortex is so consumed by the basics of their health and safety, completely subsumed by it and unable to devote any energy to other higher level executive functioning.

Which, honestly, it pains me to even write about because, thinking about it in this way, the writing seems a selfish endeavor even though part of me knows that it’s also important for caregivers to feel fulfilled, to feel like we are contributing to something.

And I think that this is what I have been missing about writing — either here or in other more private places. Somehow organizing my thoughts into words, sentences, paragraphs on a screen would place them somewhere outside of pinging around inside my own head. And this, I suppose, is, in a way, what fulfillment means.

5 posts a week for 7 weeks = 35 blog posts

And I’m feeling pretty good about it. I set out about seven weeks ago having decided that I was going to post five days a week. (Truth be told, I actually was going to go for 7 days a week, but I got to my first weekend and decided it would lead to burn out so I backed off a bit.) I didn’t have an “end date” in mind or a goal for how long I would sustain it. So while the idea that “30 days set a habit” was bouncing around somewhere in my head, I mostly just wanted to see where it would take me.

And I would say that definitely it has become a habit, and a good one. Even if I don’t always look forward to sitting down and writing, it definitely doesn’t feel like a chore (if it ever did). But through the day, and even through the week, the thought of “maybe I’ll include that in a blog post” definitely crosses my mind. I don’t usually feel stressed about jotting down a thought or an idea because I know that I will be sitting down to write and post later on in the day and that the content will bubble up to the surface at the time. Making blogging a regular habit has, therefore, made me less stressed out. I’ve shown that meta cognitive part of my brain that I will, in fact, be writing down my thoughts and experienced in a semi-organized fashion on a regular basis and so I feel a little less of the desperate, clawing anxiety around the thought that I might have a REALLY GOOD THOUGHT and miss out on it because I didn’t write it down. I might not have arrive yet at the point that I trust that even a worthwhile (recordable and shareable) thought might not stick with me longer than a week, but these 35 posts have shown me that I can manage to hold those thoughts in my head for at least for a day.

I’m managed, I think, to blog one or two pursuable thoughts over the past month or so. Perhaps I edit myself a little less and am finding a bit more freedom in the process of writing down ideas. Key to this is that I’m not just writing five hundred words but I’m also hitting that “publish” button five times a week. And the world did end each time I did it. It’s not just the writing that I’ve needed to work on, I’ve needed to practice putting it out there, even on something as small as a personal blog. And the end result has been intensely gratifying. I’ve written a few times here about how for much of my life, most of my writing (and there’s been a lot) has been for assessment by one or two people (professors or teachers). And for a long time, every time I would think about writing, it would be to pitch something to an editor (or agent). A substantial part of my thought process was trying to guess at who might like what and then trying to write that best guess. It’s liberating to a shocking degree to write something, anything that is more than the product of a guess at what might please someone else.

In spite of all of the gains that I’ve made from blogging five days a week, I’m going to back off a bit here. It doesn’t seem to make sense just when this habit seems to be embedded, I know. I’m definitely not burning out. If anything, I’m just as inspired as I ever have been. Perhaps more so. That being said, I do have some other goals in mind. One is that I hope that my decreasing the frequency, I might be able to increase the quality (and perhaps length if that is what the topic calls for) of each post. And two, as I feel that this weekly habit of at least five hundred words a day five days a week is sticking, I’d like to use some of that energy to work on my fiction project. So it’s not so much that I will not be writing as much or as consistently, but that I won’t be hitting that “publish” button as often.

And I’ve gotta say, I feel pretty good about it.

(Word press just informed me that this is also my 100th post on this blog, so I’m feeling pretty good about my progress on a few different fronts. Proud of myself!)

Two more sentences than I had yesterday

I wrote two sentences today. With virtual school starting this week, most of my time has been taken up with trying to get the older two kid’s schedules, technology, and space sorted out whilst still meeting the third’s needs and interests and not neglecting him. You know those moments where everything seems to be chugging along and then suddenly you find yourself with a few spare minutes here and there that you don’t know what to do with? Yeah. Neither do I. But it’s a nice thought. I rarely ever reach those moments because I usually have a whole bunch of things lined up that either need to be taken care of or are things that I want to do (I count lying down on the couch to get caught up on a few minutes of sleep amongst those things that need to be taken care of).

Still, I managed two sentences today, sitting at the dining room table on my iPad while the two older kids were in class and the littles one was still asleep. I’m not going to say they were brilliant sentences but they got written and they weren’t terrible. As I wrote yesterday, I’m chipping away (two sentences by two sentences, just like on the arc) at this fiction project. I’m sure that there’s something to be said here about Virginia Woolf’s idea that a writer needs a “room of one’s own.” In this case, however, a writer-mother requires not just a room of my own but, more importantly, rooms (multiple) for her children.

And so, I’m also trying to clear space so that my kids have designated spots for their virtual learning. This has meant going through boxes and boxes and shelves and shelves of old things, clearing away the unwanted stuff, which, truth be told is most of it. I don’t know why I’ve spent all of these years thinking that I am a person who holds on to the little flotsam and jetsam of life. And I think at some point, I squirreled away things because I felt like hanging on to sentimental items was something I was just supposed to do. There is no good reason that I can think of why I was under this impression, but to be perfectly honest, this week I’m transforming myself into someone who very much enjoys throwing away unnecessary things. I guess it’s true that it does feel like bit of a (much overdue) unburdening of myself. I’ve heard before that when people are at a point of a bit life transition, they will chop off all of their hair. In spite of the fact that mine might nearly begin to brush my lower back, I haven’t been able to get up the energy it would involve to get my hair cut in a pandemic in which my kids still aren’t able to get vaccinated. In short, absent a bold hair cutting life transition statement, there is the purge statement. I’m looking forward to the moment when I can look, full face frontal into the camera, and say, “this house is clean.”

(Not) Having a Literary Agent

Before the night of my thesis reading for my MFA in creative writing, I had been told that it was possible there would be agents, publishers, and editors in the audience coming to listen for those who might be the next up coming talent in the literary world. I read a few pages from my thesis, which I had been working on for the past two years. The focus of my thesis were the three or so years I had spent teaching and then visiting in a Karenni refugee camp along the Thai-Burma border. The passage I chose to read from retold a day which one of my students had told me about when he returned home from watching his family’s buffalos to find that Burmese soldiers had shot and killed his grandmother and his little brother in his home.

In spite of the fact that I had been told there might be agents there, I was honestly a little surprised when one contacted me the next day asking to meet with me. I was excited, nonetheless. I asked my thesis professor for advice. “I’ve never done this before,” I told him. I was more than a little deflated when his response was, “Tell her that you’re not ready for an agent yet but you will be in touch with her when you are.” And, yet, what I read around the edges of his response was the idea that once I was ready for an agent, I would be able to pick and choose.

This was not the case.

I did end up meeting with this agent. But, truly, I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea that agents are people who work for writers and what sort of questions I should be asking her. And at the end of the meeting, I told her (almost verbatim, I’m sure) what my professor had told me to say.

In the intervening years, I did write to a few other agents, some of whom I had met through my MFA program. I didn’t receive any responses. I gave a reading at an event at a bar in New York that was specifically billed as a way for grads of my program to meet agents. This event resulted in a single email from an editor at the new Vice website. My reply to this editor’s request to see some of my work did not earn a response. Eventually, I decided that I’d been waiting around to be “ready” for too long and with no clear signs one way or the other, I decided to contact the agent who I had met after my thesis reading.

I sent her some more pages of my thesis. And quickly signed with her thereafter. I was an agented writer. I sent her more pages. Months passed with no response. When I followed up, she apologized. She had decided that she couldn’t represent non-fiction work, but sent along a list of agents who might be a better fit. The only person on the list who responded to me was a woman who I had gone to high school with. We reminisced via email briefly but she never asked to see my work.

I would like to say that this is a blog post about persevering and not giving up in the face of rejection. I’d like to say that I kept trying and pitching and writing until finally I contacted the right agent and so on and so forth. But that’s not what happened. The truth is that I pretty much stopped writing for a long, long time.

And perhaps that was for the best. The truth is that what I had been writing about in graduate school was other people’s stories of incredible hardship and heartache and pain and destruction. In retrospect I think perhaps those are not the stories that I want to tell or that I believe I have a right to tell. Part of me knows that had I had any measure of success by telling these stories that belong to other people, I likely would have felt very guilty. Rather than feeling like I was helping by bringing attention to the situation, I would have been piling more pain on to it.

Or at least that’s what I tell myself: some version of “it was for the best.”

And I have started writing again. Here, on this blog and from time to time I chip away at a longer piece of fiction. I don’t get paid for it (in fact, I pay to maintain this site). And I don’t, perhaps, reach hoards of readers. But it is satisfying nonetheless: the routine of it, the sense of accomplishment that I’ve sustained over a month’s worth of five posts a week. I wish I had any kind of bold, reassuring words for fellow writers out there who might be struggling. The only thing I’ve got is incredibly trite (perhaps cliche the real reason why I’ve never gotten and held on to an agent!): do it for yourself.

Flipping Pancakes

I started my morning trying to get on to a zoom help call with the local school district whilst simultaneously trying to make pancakes. My kids’ schedules still seem to be somewhat jacked up. And we all gotta, you know, eat.

Of course, the zoom call didn’t start on time. And, of course, they let me into the room just as I was downstairs in the basement retrieving an ingredient so that I was hustling up the stairs lest I miss my chance. They put me into a break out room to get the problems solved almost immediately after I expressed my dissatisfaction. This is at least the second time that I’ve been under the distinct impression that they’ve tried to shuttle my chats or calls into a more discreet (and discrete) area just as I’ve gotten going asking questions like, “should I be concerned that these on-going issues are an indicator of the education my children are going to receive?” God bless the educators and administrators facing a parent who has been homeschooling for the past two plus years and the answer is, unfortunately, yes. Yes, this chaos is reflective of the education they are going to receive.

So here I am just trying to make it so that the technology is actually working, and I keep getting a lot of explanations and defensiveness muddying so-called apologies. “The adults need to remain calm so that the kids don’t pick up on our stress,” which really makes my blood pressure crank up. “No, I want to say, the adults need to take care of this scheduling and technology nonsense so that the kids don’t get unnecessarily stressed out,” But I don’t.

“Everybody has been working really hard,” an administrator says as I attempt to flip pancakes with one hand and mute myself with the other so that I can ask kid #1 to please go wake up kid #2. (Husband was taking the auto-immune disordered dog to the vet and kid #3 was, praise God, still asleep.) There’s more: “innovative program, the likes of which have never been done before”. I want to tell her to take this type of language to the school board or wherever they need to take it to get money. I don’t care. I just want my kids to not be upset because the links they’re clicking on don’t go anywhere as they are slowly becoming more and more panicked that they are missing something or that it is they who have done something wrong. “You’re doing everything right,” I tell her. “It’s the grown ups who’ve messed up.”

Which is pretty much always the case.

We go over to my parents’ place in the afternoon. The kids log on from there while I continue to work on getting some space there for them to set up their school laptops. We’re low on space at our own house and a little change of scenery and company has been a necessity during this pandemic. It’s becoming increasingly important with the kids all being under the age of 12 and therefore unable to get vaccinated. While many spaces and places have seemingly been opening up a bit more lately, from a parent’s perspective that has just meant that more places become riskier and riskier for unvaxxed kids. We are trying to spread out as much as we can within the confines of safe space.

I’m trying to clean and organize a bit there, but the tension from dealing with the so-called adults has settling into my hips, which, in turn, yank and pull on my lower back. I’m fighting a battle against pain with only a few weapons: myo-facial release, stretches, and Advil.

Part of me really thought that once school started, I’d be able to relax a bit. I thought I might even have some time to myself. Virginia Woolf wrote about the need for writers (and particularly women) to have a room of one’s own. It will be a while (if ever) before I have a room of my own, but I certainly thought that letting go of the homeschooling wold perhaps at least open up a little space (perhaps even a whole room’s worth) in my head. More room for creativity. For the time being, that creativity, that room is being dedicated to attempting to communicate with an entity (the school district) that doesn’t want to be communicated with. One of its representatives on the zoom call today said that I was sounding anxious and my first thought was, “You don’t sound nearly as anxious as I would think an administrator hearing about what’s going on in their school should be. Am I really entrusting my kids to people who seem to not even care about simply doing their jobs?” And the answer is no, no I’m not entrusting them to anyone. That’s why I’m on these calls and emailing and checking in with my kids multiple times a day, sometimes multiple times an hour. That’s why I’m putting as much energy as I am into this. And that’s why I’m flipping pancakes.

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