Monday, March 29, 2010

Solitary, Solitude

Writing for me is mainly a solitary activity. I do my best thinking when I’m alone, music and TV off or at the least turned to something I can ignore. Baxter – long-suffering beagle – can be by my side, but only if he promises to keep his snoring to a minimum. Will – long-suffering husband – generally keeps to another room when I’m writing, lest he be subjected to my nasty-but-well-meant (“Can’t you see I’m working?”) comments. There are only two humans in my house and three bedrooms, but sometimes I long for a little cabin or shack or shed or teepee out back, where I can seriously retreat from the rest of life.

Failing that, I go to the Queen Bean, a little coffeehouse on 14th. It’s not solitude, but since the music stays in the background and the people basically keep to themselves, it’s the next best thing. It’s solitude’s slightly more populous cousin with endless access to caffeine.

I have a favorite spot: an interior table with a lamp and access to a power strip. I have a favorite drink: a non-fat chai latte (writing is not only solitary, but sedentary, after all). If I do hit it big someday, the ‘Bean gets a mention in the acknowledgements (the way it has in my other blog), because in this funky little converted house, I’ve done some of my best writing. At least half of my novel was written here, in between spurts of checking my email (free wi-fi has become quite a problem, really) and staring out the window at a tree I keep meaning to classify. When I’m brushing up against a deadline, I head right for the ‘Bean and order myself not to move from my seat, the way I can’t seem to do at home, where laundry lurks in unsightly piles and there is always a dish waiting to be washed or gunk in the corners of the sink begging for close attention with a toothpick.

Somehow sitting in the ‘Bean gives me this romantic feeling, like I’m an ex-pat at a Paris cafĂ©, two tables down from Jake Barnes. Everyone here seems artsy in one way or another, committed to their craft. Even the guy next to me, studying 3 x 5 cards printed with the tiny, precise lettering of an engineer, is poised for greatness. The woman who needs to be reminded to take her cell phone outside is some sort of editor, complete with thick-framed glasses and a sweet little iMac. On weekends, I bump into the graphic novelist who knows my husband but can never seem to remember my name. That’s fine; judging by his portfolio, he’s a talented artist. Judging by his conversation, he’s a bit of a pig. If I get stuck in my writing, I can always eavesdrop and transcribe a conversation from a nearby table. I’m still waiting to find a place in my writing for the guy who says to the girl, quite earnestly, “So, what’s your backstory?” How true! I remember thinking. We all have a backstory…

Today, I type this while waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s an exercise more than anything else, a few dry brush strokes that will give way to the bigger picture. In a minute I might give in and check my email or bring my cup to the counter for a re-chai. But for now I sit back and breathe it in, this almost-solitary solitude.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Word To Your Mother

My mom, a special ed teacher, rode my academic ass for the better part of my life. While the rest of you did your homework, she layered additional learning tasks. Every week I was required to take three reading comprehension tests. No, I’m not kidding. When I passed, I got a point and when I earned enough points, she would take me over to the toy store to pick out a prize.

Like other parents, my mother also pushed me to read, regularly taking me to the local library and bookstore. This backfired when, for my twelfth birthday, she gave me a dictionary.

“I didn’t ask for this,” I said with a huff.

“No, you didn’t. But you should have.”

I peeled back the cover.

“I already wrote your name in it so, no, you can’t return it,” my mom said as she collected the discarded wrapping paper.

To show my dissatisfaction, I refused to use it.

“What does discursive mean?” I asked.

“Go look it up,” my mom instructed as she rinsed some potatoes.


To this day, the spine and pages of that dictionary remain pristine. You see, I hated learning vocabulary. Remembering origins and roots made my brain hurt. And even when I finally learned what a word meant, I rarely understood how to use it in a sentence. Or at least in a sentence more complex than ‘this is [insert adjective here]’.

A few years ago, as my writing habit became more of a passion, I vowed to grow my vocabulary. I signed up for Word of the Day. I even started a blog where I posted a word’s definition, tried using it in three different sentences, and then invited my readers to participate. Things were going well until I visited my then boyfriend in Alaska. Standing alongside a stream, glacier melt running through the wilderness, I turned to this one-time NASA astronaut candidate and tried to show off.

“The turgid waters rush over the slippery rocks and down toward the forest,” I said with a proud smile.

“Turbid,” he said with a chuckle.


Not having a large vocabulary is like trying to paint only with primary colors. After a while, you get pretty tired of blue. But I haven’t given up yet. One trick I recently learned was to print out what I’ve written and then go through and circle any word I think can be improved. Then I scour the thesaurus and dictionary for ideas. It’s actually done wonders for my writing. Especially my novel. I mean, in the span of 40,000 words, variety is crucial.

Even with this trick under my belt, I still know I can do more. But what? No, I am serious. How do you guys build your vocabulary? And if any of you suggest vocab cards, I will cut you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What fresh hell is this?

Z is trying to get me healthy. I’m not unhealthy in the sense of having a cold or rheumatism, but since I started Z and since I started the MFA program, I haven’t been living “a healthy lifestyle.”

Oh, who am I kidding. I’ve never seriously had one. I don’t eat green vegetables and for five of the seven years I belonged to my gym I was mostly paying fat tax. One day a month I would sheepishly hand my payment to the ex-Marine in sweatpants, climb onto the treadmill, and vow to do better in the coming weeks. But then I’d forget to go. Eventually, I started mailing my payments in, which is so much easier.

Z, on the other hand, eats like a sensible person and knows himself well enough that he recognizes that daily exercise keeps him balanced and happy. I often suspect that if our paths had crossed in high school we never would have noticed each other. A girl with her nose in a book has little time for boys shoulder deep in rugby scrums. Thank goodness he came to Indiana for two years and learned how to be sedentary or I never would have met him.

Where I am from, the land is mostly flat, so Seattle was a surprise to me. We live on First Hill. When I am at the bottom sucking down a chocolate shake at Red Robin and looking out at the beauty of Elliott Bay, the horizon—if you ignore the Olympic Mountain Range in the distance--is horizantalish like home. But then we start to climb up to the peak where we live, and the huffing and palpitating and cursing begin. By the time we reach the front door (at the top of an additional 22 steps), I’m thinking of it as Fresh Hell instead of First Hill.

The first two weeks I was here, the hills and living with no car was completely kicking my backside. Even now, when we walk the five blocks to downtown, I navigate our journey home completely based on which streets have the lowest inclines and if we can time our outings so we could get into the convention center before 10 p.m. when the doors lock, because there in the heart of the building, is a giant, glorious series of escalators that will carry us up half of the hill we would otherwise have to climb. Z doesn’t understand. He does no huffing and puffing. And lately, he’s been tricking me into more walks that are purposeless, save for the health benefit.

Since the weather has been good, he sometimes lures me out with the promise of some treat at the end: a movie, supper, a neighborhood we haven’t yet been in that I’d like to see. When we get back—after the agonizing climb up First Hill—he asks expectantly if I feel better. Of course I don’t feel better. I’m sweaty and out of breath and my muscles are twitching. Maybe LATER I’ll feel the benefits. I might sleep better. My pants might eventually be less tight. But during or right after the walk? When I get back from a walk I start seriously considering the benefits of an adjustable bed and a motorized scooter.

When I give my students writing exercise, they react like I do to the walks. They do it only because there is a space in the gradebook that needs filling. You’d think when I say, “We’re going to do a fastwrite” that I’ve said, “Drop and give me twenty.” And even though I love writing in ways most of my students cannot fathom, I am sometimes the same way. If I’ve been away from the keyboard for a while, when I come back to it, my brain aches and looks for every excuse there is to escape the torture (i.e. I’ve got an infected hangnail that hurts when I depress the keys, the mail is bound to be here soon and I should just wait to start then, that laundry isn’t going to wash itself!).

But the thing about sitting down and doing the writing is I never feel worse once I’m done. My joints don’t creak. My brain doesn’t immediately try to think up excuses for getting out of it the next day. I feel a little bouncy and invigorated. It really isn’t fresh hell at all. Maybe after a few more walks I’ll feel the same way about exercise too. I have my doubts.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Before Literary Success...

William Shakespeare was an actor and theatre manager.

Charlotte Bronte was an underpaid and overworked governess.

Charles Dickens, as a child laborer, pasted labels on bottles of shoe polish. Later he clerked in a law office.

James Joyce, an accomplished tenor, paid the bills by singing.

Mark Twain was a typesetter and steamboat captain.

T.S. Eliot worked for Lloyd’s Bank of London.

William Faulkner delivered mail for the University of Mississippi.

William Carlos Williams was a doctor who made house calls.

Wallace Stevens sold insurance, eventually becoming a company vice president.

Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in World War I.

John Steinbeck was a tour guide and caretaker at a fish hatchery.

Raymond Carver worked as a janitor and delivery man.

Paula Treick DeBoard worked as a babysitter, clothes ironer, donut maker, fry girl, switchboard operator, banquet server, typist, in-home caregiver, donut wrapper, transcriptionist, paginator, pitter, ad copy editor, public relations flack, quasi marketing expert, teacher (substitute, summer school, night school, Saturday school, English), yearbook advisor, department chair, donut eater, ticket taker, essay rater, and well… the list will no doubt continue.

Right now it’s good for me to remember that everyone starts somewhere.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Edit. Delete. Retry.

It’s mid-term and there are papers to grade, I have to figure out the 25 words that will be read as I walk across the stage to collect my degree in July, there’s a presentation draft and essay due in a week, and I’m trying to figure out how a person is supposed juggle husband and family/friends when she returns home for her first post-wedding visit. (Both sides would insist they don’t need juggling, but I’m a child of divorce and my brain insists otherwise.) So what have I been thinking about for the last few days?

Well, frankly, Sandra Bullock and her disappointing husband.

As a newlywed and a person roughly the same age as Bullock (and as the above-mentioned child of divorce), a person might assume that one or all of these are the reasons I keep pouring over photos of the tattooed webcam porno queen/other woman or thinking about—whether the timing was intentional or not—how mean it was that she barely got any time at all to enjoy that Oscar statuette before her life got all crumbly and ugly.

But no, the real reason is that I keep thinking how writing is better than real life, primarily because in writing, you can revise. You can, for instance, get to the end of your story and realize that a character doesn’t belong and should have never been included in the main character’s trajectory and backspace him right out of existence. Or, if you see real value in the growth for the main character caused by the inclusion of the badly behaved secondary character, you can make sure she has an air-tight pre-nup and a nightstand full of condoms that she has insisted he use since they got together. You can also make sure that there is a Justin Matissee on her horizon that will make all the recent yuck of her life suddenly worth it. At the very least, you can make sure that her acceptance speech for a major award does not include a teary, heart-felt reference to the man about to harsh her Oscar high.

If only we were allowed to edit all the scripts.

Friday, March 19, 2010

You've Got a Friend

I know I’m stating the obvious here but writing is a very solitary process. You sit alone at your desk. You quietly create characters in your head. Sometimes you hit your stride, whipping out ten pages in two hours. Other times you belabor an idea for a month and still can’t get your footing. Either way, you go at it alone.

“I’m stuck,” I complained to a coworker.

“I’ve got nothing left,” I whined to my sister.

No matter how hard I thought, no matter how much I read, I couldn’t find inspiration for the next story of my collection. Horizontal on my sofa, watching the cast of The Real Housewives of New York bicker, I tried to conjure up a plot. I knew I had come to a really bad place when I seriously considered writing a story about a guy who, while driving home from banging a hooker, accidentally hits a runner on the side of the road and leaves him for dead. All I was missing was an alien.

At the end of my rope, I stepped out of my one-woman writing cave and reached out to friends. I sent one email to Paula because she has read my entire collection so far and another email to Ryane because she’s politely listened to me yap about it. In both, I summarized what I had to date, noting the chapter number, main character and plot. Then I pleaded for suggestions. “What’s missing?” I asked.

Both ladies wrote back within a few hours and both provided incredible feedback. “Write about a slumber party,” Paula excitedly suggested, pointing out that this will fill the gap where my main character leaps in age and develop her in a new way. “Write a story from the birth father’s POV,” Ryane proposed, explaining how cool it would be for the reader to have his perspective. I was suddenly fidgety with excitement.

It’s been a few days since those seeds were planted. Nothing has been written but that’s because I’m too busy thinking things through. Saturday I’ll meet my friend Allison in Princeton for a day of spring shopping. Later that night, I might try to catch American Buffalo at the McCarter. And then Sunday? Sunday I will return to my writing cave. I will ignore incoming calls and refuse to check Facebook. I will disappear to the deep darkness that is the writing life, toting nothing more than my laptop and a nice chilled bottle of Sokol Blosser’s Evolution. But the entire time, I’ll know I have my friends within reach in case I hit another wall.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


On Saturday, I drove 360 miles from my house in California to Ashland, Oregon, and then on Sunday, I drove 360 miles back. It wasn’t a life-threatening situation or a quick trip home – it was purely for pleasure. Ashland is the home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it’s one of my favorite places to visit. Not just for Shakespeare (and the host of other plays), but for the sweet small town, the literate population, the cozy pubs, the meandering paths through Lithia Park. And then to see a world-class production of Hamlet to boot? Bliss.

Alisha, my fellow English teacher and partner-in-crime was up for the ride – miles of tedious I-5, then breathtaking Shasta and towering redwood forests at the border. There wasn’t a chance of being bored or sleepy – we talked for five-and-a-half hours each way, pausing only for caffeine and potty breaks.

That evening we saw a modern production of Hamlet, and even if there was a brief period during Act IV where my eyelids slid closed, it was fantastic. Hamlet himself looked like a cross between Conan O’Brien and Beavis; Rosencrantz and Gildenstern were two lovely women – it was tragic indeed when they were pronounced dead; four “Playas” came onstage to rap the play-within-a-play; Ophelia went delightfully mad.

Maybe it was kind of a crazy idea, especially with daylight savings cutting our trip a valuable hour shorter, but for about thirty-six hours I didn’t think at all about my novel. I browsed a bookstore, enjoyed a masterpiece of world literature, and talked about books and the teaching of books – and I got out of my own head. I was able to forget, completely, the problems of how to work in a certain scene, of which “darlings” still needed to be killed, of how in the heck I was going to wrap this thing up in time.

Today, only slightly sleepy, I was back on task. I plowed through about twelve pages which tomorrow will need an editing eye. I was able to climb right back inside Kirsten’s head, following my writer’s instinct.

720 miles in two days? As it turned out, not a bad idea at all. I guess I’m thinking of it now as a sort of recharging, a realignment of purpose. My own world had been feeling claustrophobic – it was nice to breathe someone else’s air, even if it was only for a few hours.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Will Write For Food (or Free)

Through various avenues, I’ve been introduced to people who make a living from writing. I witness their successes with envy and awe. And while I know I’m a capable writer, my coworkers turning to me for advice when they craft a letter or prepare a document, I’m admittedly paralyzed when it comes to exchanging my talent for dollars.

In the last few years, I’ve had a few pieces published. Southern Women’s Review included one of my stories in their Summer 2009 issue and Indie Ink has used two of my essays. All of these are worthwhile accomplishments in my book. None of them, however, have resulted in payment.

Having worked in the business world for over a decade, I’m the first one to admit you sometimes have to spend money to make money. And this is exactly how I’ve approached publishing. Donating my work means I get a publishing credit to note on my resume. The more publishing credits I can list, the more seriously editors and agents will consider me. But a mere four months shy of receiving my MFA in Creative Writing, I’ve officially tired of writing pro bono.

“Check Craigslist,” Ryane suggested a few months ago.

“Use this list-serve,” a classmate urged.

Everyone has good suggestions. And just like dieting and exercising, at the onset I commit a 100%. I send writing samples, complete applications and attach resumes. But after a few rejections, or in some cases no response whatsoever, it’s hard to keep your chin up. I’m only able to smack my head against a wall so many times. Which explains why, since the start of the year, I took a break from the publishing world.

Then, last week, while reading a review for a friend’s restaurant Delicatessen, a review rife with poorly structured sentences, I came out of retirement. Pens blazing, I perused Craigslist. I came across a few part-time listings for writing positions and decided to submit my personal information to two. And within three days, personalized responses appeared in my inbox.

One place already filled the opening, but the email was friendly and supportive, thereby softening the rejection blow. The other place? They want me. This afternoon I’ll complete a phone interview which appears to be nothing more than an informational session where I’ll be given the specifics of my role as a culinary writer for Joonbug.

It still isn’t paid. I’ll still continue to peddle my words for free. But this marks my first foray into journalism since my publishing debut in 1990 when I co-authored the editor’s note for an issue of Sassy magazine. And if anything, it should help with my resume (sigh).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bang a Gong; Cheer Me On

This past weekend my husband and I were in Anchorage for a conference where he was presenting and where I was contemplating the Last Frontier and how I wish I were made of the stuff that would make a life there a possibility. As it is, I had to return the F 150 Truck we were given at the rent-a-car counter for something smaller because I wasn’t woman enough for that much machine. (Since Z is from Zimbabwe he has no ‘driving on snow’ privileges when I’m in the car.)

When he wasn’t conferencing and I wasn’t contemplating, we spent time with two of his friends from Minnesota, one of whom now lives in Alaska and has her very own Alaska-born toddler, who came down from Seward with his momma to see the ceremonial start to the over 1,150 mile Iditarod. The last great race.

To say I was excited about getting to see the beginning of this race with my own eyes would be an understatement. It’s one of those things like Burning Man that for about thirty seconds before I remember who I am, I actually think I might be capable of participating. But I like amenities. I complain loudly if the temperature veers beneath 40 or above 75. My idea of roughing it is staying in a hotel with Flex shampoo and a bedspread instead of a down comforter in a white duvet. When I hear the word “camp” I think of John Waters, not sleeping outdoors with no porcelain in sight. So seeing the start of the Iditarod gave me a few moments of feeling like I was at one with the participants, both human and dog, before recalling that really I'm a girl who wears UGG boots because someone told her she should, not because they keep her warm.

We lined the street and waited for individual musher’s names to be announced. The dogs would bound down Fourth Street amid cheers and waves, and then we’d stamp our feet, blow on our hands, and wait for the next announcement. It was a happy day. I didn't see a single miserable person the whole time we were cheering.

In case you were wondering, this is where I tie the Iditarod to writing. Ready? Okay.

If every time I sat down at the keyboard, a crowd of people were standing around me happily clapping and cheering for what I was about to do (note, not what I had accomplished—these mushers could have steered their dog sleds into the nearest McDonald’s and called it a day for all we know--the cheers were all about anticipation), well, then, I suspect I might produce more. Or at least have better self-esteem.

I know, I know, the mushers care passionately about their dogs and make them wear little booties and the dog’s comfort comes before their own and yadda yadda yadda, but I do the same for my words. I make little nests for them in which to rest on the page. I arrange them carefully in order of cleverness and strength to make sure they can pull the sled of my essay from start to finish. I check on them regularly for physical problems that may impede our chances of making it to the finish. (All dangling modifiers and split infinitives beware.) I'll stop the metaphor there, but here's what I want to know: where’s my triumphal launch every time I hunker down in my Writing Chair?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Re: Your Submission

When I get home from work and log on to my email, there’s a message waiting from me. From Ploughshares. Re: Your submission.

I let it sit. There are twenty or so other messages to read. Witty comments from friends, “We have received your resume” form messages from CareerBuilder, reminders of upcoming deadlines in the MFA program. News from my dad, who keeps me posted on family matters – changes of address, hospital stays, birth announcements and funerals.

And then – well. The dog needs to be loved (I have become adept at typing with one hand, petting with the other), the cats bookend me, reminding me that they need to be fed. Dishes from last night are still soaking in the sink, and laundry is piling up.

Look, I tell myself -- if I open the message, it’s either going to be a congratulations, and I’ll spend the next week too giddy with excitement to do anything as mundane as dog petting/cat feeding/dish washing/laundry folding. Or, which is much more likely, it’s a thanks-but-no-thanks, your work is lovely but not right for this magazine. And then I’ll have to go through my chores with a sense of bitterness rather than anticipation. So the message can wait.

Once upon a time, I updated my Facebook status with “Paula --- --- is officially a writer! She received her first rejection slip!” I do remember that even though it was a “no” – a typewritten “no,” as if it had traveled not only from Nebraska but also through a few decades – it was exciting because I had now joined the ranks of presumably every other modern writer. A quick surf of the Internet and you can find rejection letters to Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Stephen King. Even The Diary of Anne Frank wasn’t immediately snatched up. Lord of the Flies, I remind myself, was ignored by something like eighteen publishers. So I laughed it off. I started keeping a stack of rejection letters – not enough to wallpaper a room, but enough of a motivation to keep me going.

Then a friend told me, meaning well, that there was a website that had published some of her work and would definitely love mine. Well, what the heck – I mailed a few pieces to the editor, who wrote back: “Our readers would not appreciate your work.” Ouch. I stewed about that one for a while, writing and rewriting snappy comebacks in my mind.

I moved on, had a few things published here and there. I got used to the roller coaster ride that is the literary market.

Then, from Redivider, a personal rejection note. One that told me the editors had debated my piece for some time before ultimately deciding against it. I was weirdly thrilled. It was an odd feeling, to think that perfect strangers – educated, literary, powerful strangers – had sat around a table discussing my short story. It would have been better, but maybe only slightly, if they had said yes.

Being published is important – I do recognize that. But I’ve also come to the place where I understand that a rejection letter is either an opportunity for me to reconsider the story (wow – this really does suck) or renew my faith in it (wow – do these editors do nothing but sit around and smoke crack all day?). A story that’s been rejected isn’t dead. I don’t feed the fireplace with the shredded manuscript, and that’s not only because I don’t have a fireplace. Rejection, acceptance… it’s part of the process. It just means I’m a writer.

Which is why, when I finally sit at my laptop again and open the email, I don’t curl into a little ball on the floor and cry. A credit in Ploughshares would be fantastic – and it will be, some day, when it happens.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Bang the Drum

At work, I listen to a Martha’s Vineyard radio station. I spent childhood summers vacationing on Nantucket and WMVY takes me back to drippy ice-cream cones from the Juice Bar and shoes filled with sand from Surfside beach.

If I forget to start the feed when I first sit down, I eventually notice an eerie silence. It’s the kind of quiet that sound editors include just before something scary is about to happen in a movie. I immediately stop what I’m doing and start the music, letting out an audible exhale when Jay Farrar, in the middle of a song, starts drifting from the speakers.

At home, I can’t have music playing when I’m writing. My brain can’t tune it out. I get distracted by the lyrics and find myself fighting the urge to sing along. Instead, music is an escape from the creative process.

The other day, sitting at my dining table with papers strewn everywhere and a blank page on my monitor, I loaded iTunes and started one of my playlists. I was stuck, struggling, and was hopeful I’d find inspiration from Jamie Cullum or Jonatha Brooke. Maybe David Gray’s Kathleen or The Heavy’s How You Like Me Now would help me figure out a character.

When Citizen Cope’s song Sideways started, I fell back into my chair. I closed my eyes and slowly swayed to the sultry rhythm of the song. When it finished, I played it again. The gentle slope of the music, starting soft and building to a stronger version of the same refrain, carried me along. I could feel the music in my belly, sense it in my bones.

After listening to Sideways four times in a row, I closed iTunes and started writing. Slowly things came together, started making sense. I remained at my desk until a little after midnight. Total page count? Six. Total needed? More than six. Except I no longer felt overwhelmed. I saved the file and then re-opened iTunes and played Sideways one more time. This time I sang along.

What songs inspire you?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Best for Last

When I was a kid, I had a bed full of stuffed animals of every shape and size. My favorites were a sock monkey with rhinestone eyes and checked dress named Monkey, and a pink, beanbag rabbit called Pinky. Every night I would pick one stuffed animal to sleep with. Almost every night, I would pick any animal but my two favorites. I was worried that the other animals would get their feelings hurt if I overlooked them. Instead of cuddling up with Monkey or Pinky, I’d share my bed with animals I neither loved nor liked to cuddle just to demonstrate my lack of favoritism.

Perhaps all the patterns of our lives are set at a young age because this week it has come to my attention that I’m still doing the same thing. (For the record, I do not mean I am still sleeping with stuffed animals or inviting men into my bed in an attempt to keep them from the knowledge that I prefer my husband’s company.)

The semester has taken off like a runaway train, and not in the good way, but in the “careening towards derailment and certain death” kind of way. I’m teaching four online classes, and while I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew, I have a mouthful that requires two fingers pressed to my lips to keep the Fritos from spilling out. This week, one of my best and favorite creative writing students sent me an email pointing out that she hasn’t gotten a grade on a single assignment. Neither have several of her classmates. After spending the entire weekend critiquing, grading, and sending out regular mea culpas, I thought I should figure out how I had let this happen.

1. I am a procrastinator. If there is something I don’t want to do, I will do virtually anything to avoid it.

2. I just moved to Seattle and just got married and I’m learning how to be a city dweller and wife. Some days I’m distracted.

3. Hello. Four online classes are equal to six regular classes because I can’t make up lectures on the fly and I grade more slowly when I’m not using a pen.

The problem with these reasons is that I’m not behind in the other three classes, one first year composition class and two research writing classes. The workload for these classes is just as heavy. Heavier, really, because the subject matter is often tedious. (See how many papers you can read on cloning or the health care debate before you’re ready to tear your hair out.)

4. The creative writing class is the last tab on the interface I’m using and some days when the clock is edging towards 6 p.m., I see that final tab of the day, turn into Scarlett O’Hara, and say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow.” The next day, I start again with the composition classes and end up in exactly the same spot. At some point, perhaps, it should have dawned on me that insanity is continuing to do the same thing yet expecting different results.

5. The most likely reason, I’m convinced, is that while I am a procrastinator when it comes to doing things I have no interest in, I’m a much worse procrastinator when it is comes something I really want to do. I teach composition so once or twice a year I can teach a single creative writing class. The intro class is my favorite because I love watching students move from “easy A” mentality to “this is hard, good work.” Getting to witness that and help them tease out their inner, better writer, is a real joy. So I save that class until last, and sometimes last is too late.

It shouldn’t have taken me so long to figure out what I was doing because this is the same behavior I demonstrate towards the other thing I most want to do: write. While I’m not afraid the laundry, dishes, correspondence or sit-coms will get their feelings hurt if I put writing above them, it is disturbing to see how often I dally with these activities to postpone the gratification I feel when I do the thing I love. Maybe instead of a procrastinator it’s time to admit that what I really am is a masochist.

My long weekend of catching up is already paying off. I’ve gotten revisions back that are much improved and my inbox has been full of enthusiastic emails from students who now don’t feel like they are alone in the void. They’ve forgiven me, the way Monkey and Pinky regularly did when I would finally spend quality time with them. I don’t like to disappoint people, so I’m not worried about falling into old patterns and forsaking these students since I’ve realized my error. It won’t happen.

Now, if I could be just as certain that I would do the same for myself: show the favoritism, do the writing

Monday, March 1, 2010


The culminating experience of my college American literature course was a trip to Willa Cather’s hometown – Red Cloud, Nebraska. I went to school in Iowa, and despite the states’ proximity in my mind and on any Rand McNally road map, it was quite a haul. Iowa is a big place. Nebraska (as anyone who drove back and forth across I-80 a dozen times in her life should know) is one long haul – 455 miles across from end to end. I went because I loved American literature, loved my professor, loved my companions, and when I was 20 years old I was hungry for experience. Any new experience, even one that required a seven-hour drive in each direction, in a van loaded with English majors, pillows, blankets and a steady supply of sugar.

If I’ve forgotten many details of the trip, it’s either because I slept through them or because I’ve had to let go – time and intervening years have clogged my mind with other, perhaps lesser, things. But I do remember the prairie – miles and miles of it, and the way my eye felt restless, unable to settle on any fixed landmark. And there were landmarks – farmhouses, barns, silos, the odd cluster of trees and then in a blink tiny towns with a single flickering yellow light on the main drag. I also remember seeing dogs – lots and lots of dogs, wandering collar-less along leafy main streets. We were seeing Red Cloud in the spring, after all – the snow and slush had disappeared, and the hardy people and animals and vegetation had dug themselves out once more.

Three things, especially, stand out in my mind about Red Cloud. One was a docent at the Willa Cather House revealing, sotto voce, that Cather was a hermaphrodite. Well. It certainly explained her cross-dressing “Just call me Billy” phase, the fact that she never married and her long and happy stretches with female companions. But somehow, in the fifteen or so years since of reading, studying and teaching, I’ve never heard that theory from another scholar.

At the diner where we stopped for lunch, a Muppet-faced waitress (I wish I could take credit for that term; someone, another of my classmate companions, coined it first) pulled together three tables for us in the middle of the restaurant and took our order. It was your basic sandwich and soup and fries fare, with a distinct Midwestern twang. Everything was quaint – the wallpaper, the kitsch, the accent of the seed-capped man who leaned over to ask where we were from, where we were going.

-- We’re American literature students…

-- We’re here to visit the Willa Cather House.

-- We’re on a pilgrimage.

We were pretty pleased with ourselves, the privileged college students who had made such a sacrifice of our Saturday. We were fairly bursting at the seams with knowledge and conjectures.

“Ah… who?” the man asked.

-- Willa Cather!

-- My Antonia? O Pioneers!?

-- The patron saint of your town!

We laughed about this for the next seven hours. Imagine living in Red Cloud, Nebraska and not knowing who Willa Cather was. Imagine living on the prairie and being completely unexposed to “prairie lit.” How did it happen? (I can tell you now, living in the Central Valley, where my students haven’t the slightest clue to who John Steinbeck was – I can tell you how it happens.)

Maybe my best memory, though, was that our professor dropped us off in a prairie outside of town and told us, simply, to wander. It was one of life’s good moments: we wandered, picking prairie grass and twisting it into braids, feeling the chaff rub against our jeans. At one point I had gone so far from the van that when I looked back, the van was positioned against the sky, larger than life, with the sun dropping behind it like an orange rubber ball. That felt just about right – a new symbol for a new era.

* * *

I hadn’t thought about that day for a long time, and then last week, in American Literature 3430, the class I’m assisting to get some college-level teaching experience, it all came back. We were discussing My Antonia – Cather’s treatment of foreigners, gender issues, nature imagery. What we were doing, of course, was seeing what Cather’s work meant for today, for us. How could we, through the lens of 2010, interpret this work?

Somewhere in the midst of these weighty issues, my mind began to drift. It may be quite possible that I am not cut out for such serious thought. Instead, I was back in Red Cloud, running my hand over the split ends of prairie grass. I was seeing the world as Cather saw it, with her writer’s eye.

In a now-famous letter, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote to Cather, encouraging Cather to leave behind her editorial position at McClure’s in order to take up the more important work of writing. Jewett said, among other things – “to work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writers’ lot; (s)he is the only artist who must be a solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook upon the world.”

I’m not a die-hard Cather fan and yet – of course this must be true. How could she conjure up the prairie when her head was full of manuscripts to be edited? How could she delve into the lives of her characters when the demands of her own life were so pressing? I realize that I’m making an argument for my own under/unemployment, but right now writing seems to demand so much from me that I can’t possibly have time for anything else. There’s barely time to walk the dog and iron a shirt in the morning…

I’m at a different place in my life than I was as a college student. Now the idea of a pilgrimage for literature’s sake feels quaint. Back then, a day away from my life meant that I had to catch up on reading or laundry some other time. Now a day off feels huge, consequential. The manuscript must be dealt with now – as if either it or my impulse to write will disappear after a few hours. But if a prairie were suddenly to appear outside my front door – replacing the lawn that needs to be mowed, the vacant house across the street – I wouldn’t need much convincing to drop everything, at least for a few minutes.