Breath in

If matter can be neither created nor destroyed,

                                Then,

Is it really so hard to believe

that life,

                that breathing

operates in the same way?

That as I inhale,

it is only because someone else

released

              the gift of

                               their breath?

That my exhale, the gentle push of oxygen and carbon dioxide,

must be received

                              somewhere else?

Across the marble of our Eearth,

each expanding belly

is matched by a contracting one.

The shallow breaths of infants

and

             the elderly.

The robust inhalations of athletes

                                                             matching

the robust exhalations of other fit bodies.

And then an army of me’s,

middling in our unathleteness.

Our panting exertions.

                                         Our mouth breathing.

Six billion of us working

                                           together.

Our bodies dancing over time and space.

Convex body matching

                                       concave one.

In and out.

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Look Through It

My favorite activity be it spring, summer, fall…and yes, I suppose even winter, is walking.  Long walks through my neighborhood, getting lost in a place I know as well as the puzzle shape on the back of my dog’s neck.  My feet tired, always walking too far, and nearly wretched by the time I make it home.  But best of all is watching the way my neighborhood changes from season to season.  Watching the crocus and tulip give way to columbine and flox, then submitting to piles of leaves and clogged grates.   Too often, the walk becomes about the destination – how far I can get, a retail street I want to meander along to see what’s changed, or grabbing a coffee or waffle.  I walk by the budding trees, the street arrayed in pinks and purples and whites.  “How pretty,” I think as I stride past, seeing only the flower nearest my line of sight, missing entirely the tiny bright veins in the petals, those webs of life that course through us all.

 

Today, I stopped and looked.  I stood under magnolias and gazed up into the patchwork of pink and brown and blue sky.  I saw the network of flowers as a pattern of color, not as individual pieces attached to more individual pieces.  The trees were one, connected through all their pieces – ground to trunk to limbs to branches to stems to flowers to the wind and the sky.  I stood alongside a dogwood and looked into the white petals like so many ballet slippers.  The apple blossoms against a blue sky, a wedding veil catching a fresh breeze.  Cheery blossoms so deeply pinkish-purple that I recognized ambrosia swirling in the silver cups of Athena and Diana.

 

Too often, we walk by the world, even as we walk in it.  Stop.  See into it.  Look through it.  Look beyond.

Daily Prompt: Careless Whisper

On a summer Portland morning, my dog and I stopped at a park to enjoy the grass and stare up into the branches of the great walnut and its sun-dappled leaves – well, that’s what I was doing while my dog sniffled around for exciting new aromas. We were not alone, but shared the park with a woman eating a sandwich from the Plaid Pantry down the way. My dog wandered over, of course, seeing what might be up for offers or if a lick of packaging might be necessary. I called her back, apologized to the woman, and said to my dog, “stop that now. No one likes a beggar.” As I rose to leave, I saw the woman’s backpack and sleeping bag tucked under the bushes near the park fence. She was homeless. I have never said anything so insensitive in my life and all for lack of just observing and putting two and two together before opening my mouth. (Not to imply that this kind-faced woman begs for anything, but nonetheless). I woke up for nights afterward, ashamed in the dark of what I’d said.

Day 3 AWP Conference

Saturday March 1

  • 9 am.  “What the Dog Said: Writing in Unusual Points of View.”  Panelists: Lydia Ship, Anthony Varallo, Amina Gautier, Cara Blue Adams.  This panel addressed the way that unusual points of view can be used, such as writing from the pov of a dog or an unusual character.  Amina Gautier read from her story “Push” in which she writes from the pov of the bully, not the victim.  This choice allowed her to create sympathy for both characters rather than the sentimentality that often comes from writing the victim’s story.  Tony Varallo read from his story “Family Debates,” an almost script-like short story which is incredibly hilarious.  One key point was that the choice of point of view must be in service to the story, not the other way around.  That is, don’t write from 2nd person point of view because you think it’s kind of cool and wonky (it is), but because this point of view reveals something that would otherwise be hidden.  Write from the point of view of the dog or the ant or the used tea-bag when it reveals something in the story that could not have been revealed another way.  When we use point of view as a catchy look-at-me device, readers see through it.  “Point of view is a writer’s first and last choice.”
  • 10:30 am.  “So You Want to Build a Platform: But What is it & Why Do You Need One?”  Panelists: Shelia McMullin, Molly Gaudry, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Sheryl Rivett, Arisa White.  This panel was largely directed toward women writers, and “platform” here is more of a societal construct than a writerly one – i.e. building a place for women writers to build a community around their particular “issue.”  My own thinking of this was “platform” as in “the place for a writer to showcase work, provide a C.V., and generally promote one’s self as a writer.”  Both were covered.  WordPress was commonly showcased both by Molly’s personal and theLitPub.com website.  Blogspot, though connected to Google and thus more likely to get a high placement, is considered to be on the way out.  The idea of being a good literary citizen appeared once again when Molly Gaudry pointed out that a blog is not really a place for you to talk about you – but to talk about what you’re reading, what events you’re going to, to post reviews and suggestions, etc….and then maybe a little about yourself.  Feedly.com was offered as a place to compile your blogs so you can quickly access the ones you want to read.  Statcounter.com was also offered as a site that will tell you minute data about your blog – how readers found you, where they clicked to next, how long they spent there, etc.  LinkedIn was not widely used by the panelists, but attendees noted that they’ve had some success by participating in groups.  The question was raised – do I need multiple platforms (sites) for my different voices?  The answer was no – you can put all that in one place – even if your range is from the everyday, to humor, to family tragedy/memoir.  Some writers, such as Roxanne Gaye, do in fact maintain multiple sites that deal specifically with different ideas, topics, or voices; but largely, writers are putting this all in one place.  Many panelists made this distinction: Facebook for family and friends and brief updates; Twitter for humorous one-liners and non-sequitors (and when drunk); a blog for lengthier posts as well as showcasing work.  When one upgrades to WordPress premium, the ability to archive and organize work becomes much easier.   A recommendation was also made to keep to a schedule – once a week is usually sufficient.  Also, be picky about what you post.  If you post too much drivel, readers will un-follow you.  And again – for every 1 post about yourself, post 10 more about other people.  When I came home, I immediately looked into how to go premium with my WordPress and the price tag of $99/year seemed a little high when I could get my domain name from godaddy.com for $13.99 for two years.  However, a writer friend then said “Oh noooo,” when I told her I’d gone with godaddy.  WordPress is a place for writers.  There’s something to be said for community, remember?
  • 12 pm.  “Amazon for Authors.”  Panelists: Jon Fine, Jason Ojalvo, Phillip Patrick.  This panel highlighted the various options for self-publishing on Amazon.  Also, and very importantly! Amazon has launched multiple imprints.
    • 47North – for sci-fi, horror, and fantasy
    • Thomas&Mercer – mystery and thriller
    • Montlake Romance – romance
    • Amazon Crossing – translations
    • Amazon Encore – reprints
    • Little a – literary fiction
    • Story Front – short stories
    • Day One – a literary journal
    • Kindle Singles – 500-30,000 words for those hard-to-place works

Kindle also offers many resources for writers in terms of developing their online and Amazon presence.  Definitely worth checking out.  I personally have the first of my sci-fi/fantasy novels on kindle (under Avery Meyr – warning! (or should I say hooray!)  adult content).  Once I’m finally done reliving the glory days of AWP, that’s my next stop.

  • 1:30 pm. “Rethinking Linking: Stories and Novels, Structure and Beyond.”  Panelists: Anne Sanow, Clifford Garstang, Mary Akers, Dylan Landis, Imad Rahman.  Linked stories can pose a problem for writers and publishers – is it a novel or is it short stories?  How can it be both?  In this panel, writers addressed the difficulties which required them to, at times, either not call it anything, or call it a novel when it is in fact short stories.  Linked short stories work much differently than the novel.  Each story must stand on its own in a novel-in-stories, while chapters are part of a whole.  Mary Akers defined a novel as having a narrative arc whereas the linked stories have a “through line.”  Since we still talk about stories having an arc, I picture this as a kind of straight line with arcs that rise and fall, leaping off from that line but falling back to meet it at the conclusion of each story.  Some pitfalls of the linked stories is often the disappearance of a character.  Dylan Landis related how the beginning of her work opened with a character who then disappeared for the rest of the book.  Repeatedly, she was asked what happened to Rainy?  Ultimately, her next book of linked stories, which she has called a novel, focuses on Rainy’s story.  There was also the question of chronology – some panelists used chronology and some did not.  Clifford Garstang noted that some readers reported they’d read the last story in his work What the Zhang Boys Knew first, a troublesome thing because though each story stands on its own, they are meant to be read in order.  Imad Rahman noted the opposite – his stories can be read in any order.  Some writers wrote out of chronological order when composing the book, but ultimately put the stories in chronological order because it just happened to give the book the proper shape.  How do we link?  This idea of linking is very nebulous: what is a linked collection to one is just a collection to another.  However, Mary Akers’ point about the “freighted object” reflects that linked short stories, though independent of one another, need to have that “through line,” and this is most often created through an object.  In Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, the freighted object is the car – first the legitimate son inherits money and buys a car; then, in his grief, he beats the shit out of the car; finally, the legitimate son loses the sports car to his illegitimate brother, thus lending a kind of legitimacy and inheritance to the hushed-up child.

 

And this wraps up my AWP event!  I had one more panel I’d wished to see, but my brain was full and soggy and rather angry at the rudeness of two people who sat by me during the last two panels (a blog on AWP etiquette may be forthcoming).  I returned to the bookfair to catch a few more booths – ultimately, I did not see everything, but I did come home with about 40 lbs. of given-away and purchased journals, collections, and craft books.  It was a wonderful time, and I was glad to both go and go home.  I love all 14,000 of you who attended AWP and I also loved driving away from you and home to my wife and daughter, who, when I entered the house, jumped up and down on the couch screaming “Mama! Mama! Mama!” at the top of her voice and then hugged me for five minutes straight – a lifetime to a two-year old.  It will feel like a lifetime until AWP in L.A. in 2016, and I look forward to reading the blogs of those go to Minneapolis (brrrr) in 2014.

Day 2 AWP Conference

Friday February 28

  • 9 am.  “Passive Characters in Contemporary Fiction: Writing Problem or Literary Strategy?”  Panelists: Stephanie Grant, Bruce Machart, Eileen Pollack, Hannah Pylvainen, and Sergio Troncoso.  The most common “mistake” that appears in the workshopped story is the passive character, or alternately, a plot that is essentially the “sit and think” story.  Sit-and-think stories take many forms – driving around, wandering by one’s self, cleaning the basement, and so on.  William Maxwell has a story called “So long, see you tomorrow” which is pure reminiscence and non-action, but which clearly has made it out of workshop and into the world.  Can these stories take flight?  The answer from the panelists was a re-sounding “no.”  Why do sit-and-think stories not work when many of us spend 98% of our time sitting and thinking about stuff, or being depressed on the couch, or taking walks in which we achieve these epiphanies about our lives or the world?  Because fiction is not about the 98% of the time we sit in our sweats on the couch.  It’s about the 2% of the time we get off our ass.  While a passive plot is not going to work (i.e. my own flash story in which an old woman sits and knits and thinks about her life), passive characters can work – as long as other characters are actively working for or against the passive character – i.e. “Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville.  However, this does not mean that passivity is passé.   A passive character can reflect and illuminate a society or culture which entraps and oppresses, providing those aha! moments about ethics, religion, morals, society, etc.  Passive characters are often passive because they are undergoing extreme existential crises.    And the passive character calls into question our own passivity.  Ultimately, the passive character should only be used in those situations in which the writing is working at a higher ethical or philosophical level than what we might call commercial fiction – i.e. the passivity is a call to arms or a reflection of societal/cultural changes that the writer wants to bring attention to, thus making the reader become active in asserting his or her own activity in the face of a passive-making world.  (Had some great aha! moments myself on how to make “Knit to Purl” as well as “A Second Chance with the First One” active stories rather than sit-and-think or sit-in-my-dead-mother’s chair all day stories.  Love the inspiration that comes from panels!)
  • 10:30 am.  “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family.”  Panelists: Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, Stephanie Elizondo Griest.  This panel addresses the pitfalls of writing about family – our children, our parents, our own lives.  The panelists ranged the gamut from writing about their impaired, though very bright and independent, autistic son, to incestuous parents – an evil family secret, to family history that is embraced by the clan in a way that welcomes the writer as family historian.  The panelists ranged in their beliefs about what the writer should divulge to family before going to press.  One panelist indicated that full disclosure and rights to deletion were granted to family members, while another panelist did not tell anyone before it went to press.  The question is one of asking for input versus preserving the writer’s integrity of telling his or her own story.  Offering family members a first read and the option to change or delete can help families to participate in and contribute to a book about themselves.  However, the input, fears, and drama that can arise might also inhibit the writer from writing honestly in the current or future projects.  Both sides seem justified.  The reactions from family members was also wide and varied.  Some panelists reported that revealing family tragedies brought family closer.  Others reported irreparable splits.  Joy Castro said it best: “if the relationship is already tenuous, it will likely fall apart completely.  If it is already strong, it will just be strengthened.”
  • 12n. “Author and Editor: the Relationship that Builds a Book.”  Panelists: Chuck Palahniuk, Monika Drake, Jess Walter, and Calvert Morgan.  Chuck Palahniuk’s editor was unable to attend and so his long-time workshop partner Monika Drake sat in.  The discussion tended toward how Jess and Calvert worked together on making editorial decisions on the book, as well as the way their relationship evolved in the time they’ve work together.  A few disagreements were covered, particularly how Jess turned in Beautiful Ruins to his editor and accidentally left “the” at the beginning of the title.  A debate ensued as to the thematic nuances of The Beautiful Ruins vs. Beautiful Ruins.  Ultimately, Jess won this argument (as, I imagine, all writers think he should have), and it became a story they joke about.   Chuck and Monika addressed the trust needed in a successful workshop, as well as the need for working with people you’re willing to “steal from” (Chuck Palahniuk).  Ultimately, the point is that workshopping with those who consistently bring strong work fosters a healthy competition that encourages continuing to strive for the best writing, the writing that makes workshop-mates laugh or ooh and ahh – i.e. the response that we want to have created.  This is a long-standing workshop of around 15 years, so clearly these are the folks we want to hear from about how to make a workshop last.   Finally, when asked if any of these authors believed they would get to a point where they did not need their editors or workshop-mates, the answer was an unequivocal “no.”
  • 3 pm.  “How Readers Read: A Report from the Stacks of Submissions.”  Panelists: Lisa Mecham, Jeffrey Hess, Dawn Raffel, Erin Harris, Erika Goldman.  Though this panel indicated that it would be about how readers read and thus, how works are chosen to move out of the slush pile and into the next round, I found this panel tended more toward the individual processes and aesthetics of these particular publishers.  What is also difficult here is that each panelist is the publisher and therefore is not reading the “slush,” but instead the pieces that make it past their interns and into their in-boxes.  A more generalized approach might have been helpful.  For instance, Lisa Mecham is a long-time reader for Tin House, and yet we did not hear from her about her own process of reading slush submissions and deciding which 1 or 2 to recommend for further reading – having been a Tin House reader myself, I know that this is the process – 1 or 2 out of 25 submissions given to a reader will be sent on for further reading.  Also, in my two years at Tin House, just one slush submission was published – this is perhaps a more helpful idea of what writers are up against in a more statistical sense.  Writers also face the individual aesthetic and arbitrary “likes” and “dislikes” of the reader.  Again, to use my own experience, if a story was too graphically violent against women or animals, it received a “no.”  These are simply stories I can’t stomach – although, in all fairness, the quality of the writing was my peak qualification – it just happened that people who write about beating women or animals also don’t tend to write well – at least the submissions I read, though a recent New Yorker story would call that into question (I didn’t like that one either and thought the writing was nothing out of the ordinary).  Thus, while I don’t feel more illuminated on the subject of how readers read, I do sense that my own experience as a reader is a pattern for the general trend in reading.
  • 5pm.  Queens University Alumni Event.  This was a wonderful event held upstairs at the Pine Box.  Had an Old Fashioned and then a Raspberry Beret (yes, insultingly girly – but I couldn’t pass up a vodka-framboise combination!).  Loved reconnecting with Dawn Barron, Karen Celestan, Beth Uznis Johnson (Hooray again for publication in StoryQuarterly as well as admission to Tin House’s Summer Workshop!), Christin Rice, and Anne Hillesland.  Fun time had by all.  I shared the story of how Chuck P and Monika D put together a book-tour called “Bedtime Stories” with their workshop group (also comprised of Chelsea Cain, amongst others).  They dressed in PJs, brought their stuffed animals, and read adult bed-time stories.  We will definitely be making this happen at our next Queens Alumni Event.

 

Day 1 AWP Conference

Wednesday February 26th

  • Woke at 7 am and levitated until 9:30, when I picked up Hobie and we began.
  • 12:30 pm.  Arrive at Seattle Convention Center and wait in line to pick up registration materials.  A woman in my line (Me-Pn) entertains us all by yelling to her husband in another line (M-Me), which is moving much faster, thus lengthening the distance over which she has to yell.  After each rather un-funny comment, she grins around at the rest of us.  She too is riding the high of AWP registration materials pick-up day and shares her inanity with the rest of us.
  • 1 pm.  Meet Hobie’s friend, Sam Snoek-Brown and walk to Pike Place Market.  Rambutan, that spiky fruit with flesh the color of popped-out eyeballs, rests in little green cardboard boxes, reminding me of trips long ago when I ate rambutan from a stall at the Manila market.
  • 5 pm.  Attend the Festival of Language at Rock Bottom Brewery.  A wonderful array of writers, mostly poets, but some prose.  A surprising conversation between poems arises as poem after poem addresses children going to war, violence, and general commentary on the wars which have become the common landscape of our young writers.  Favorite piece – a hilarious performance by Thaddeus Rutkowski, a half-Russion, half-Chinese American.  His poem “Am I white or am I wong?” addresses the polarity of being bi-racial as well as the white-default assignment of rightness or wrongness to race.  Simply brilliant.

Thursday February 27th

  • 9 am.  “The Third Degree: Why Writers Pursue Additional Education Beyond the Bachelor’s and Master’s.”  Panelists: Fred Leebron, Michael Kobre, Nadine MacInnis, Brighde Mullins, and Queens Alum Jake Williams.  For those who have a low-res MFA, achieving an MFA through a traditional university offers the opportunity for teaching, which can be a boon to getting college teaching jobs after graduation.  Any traditional program also tends to provide assistanceships through either teaching or research, thus allowing a writer 2-3 years of focused writing time in an academic setting without taking on a hefty debt of school loans.  The Ph.D. is not a requirement for teaching university classes, but my experiences show that colleges are trending toward looking for that higher degree.  There are a few low-res Ph.D. options such as Old Dominion, Indiana University Pennsylvania, and BathSpa University.  Initially, I thought I was going to swallow my brain when I learned I could get a Ph.D. in creative writing from BathSpa; however, Mike Kobre indicated that a degree from a university outside the U.S. may pose problems when applying for teaching jobs.  While I absolutely want to re-engage with academia, I also want to be more marketable as a faculty candidate.  Still much to think on.
  • 10:30 am.  “Don’t Hate Your Life: Redesign Your Comp Class.”  Panelists: Rachel Simon, Chloe Yelena Miller, Melisa Febos, Kamilah Aisha Moon, and Alex Samets.  Learned excellent strategies for making composition assignments interesting and useful to students.  Ideas:
    • Cover Letter: in the process of practicing a skill students will need on the job market, instructors can work on paragraph organization and the mechanics of grammar.
    • Independent Study: the assignments are standard but students choose the topics – they can choose topics that are meaningful to them.
    • Use Documentaries – Watch documentaries such as “America the Beautiful” and then have students choose a topic addressed in that essay as the focus of the culminating essay.
    • Build up – each assignment builds toward the larger final paper.
    • Peer Review – students write and critique in the class itself.  Millenial students in particular enjoy collaborative or group work.
    • Reality TV – use the television shows students are watching to engage in larger discussions of consumerism, materialism, body image, gender identity, marriage, etc.
    • Biography – ask students to write a biography about someone they really care about
    • Cross-genre exploration – offer students a combination of essay, story, or poem that addresses some core idea – such as sibling relationships or race – and have students write their responses to these pieces.
    • Journaling – students maintain an ongoing journal in response to the weekly readings.  Instructors provide a few questions but then ask students to just generally respond.  Check these journals either every few weeks or randomly to ensure students are reading the assignments.
    • Cell phone quiz – a favorite of all panel attendees!  Every time a cell phone goes off in class, the instructor gives a pop quiz on the week’s readings.
    • 1:30 pm.  “How to Do It Now: New Trends in Publishing.” Panelists: Jeffrey Lependorf, Jon Fine, Rob Spillman, Rachel Fershleiser, Ira Silverburg.  With a panel consisting of the director of the Council for Literary Magazines and Presses, the director of author and publishing relations at Amazon, the founding editor of Tin House and Tin House books, the literary and non-profit outreach director at Tumblr, and a former agent and direct of the National Endowment for the Arts, I couldn’t go wrong with this panel.  The excitement and positivity here was truly inspiring.  People are buying books!  Both print and on-line.  And here’s where I learned the big take-away for AWP – Be a Good Literary Citizen.  The collaboration between magazines and presses reflects collaborative competition rather than capitalistic me-first thinking.  When we support one another, we all rise together.  Clearly, this is happening already.
    • 3 pm. “Creating Emotional Depth: Tools and Inspiration from Various Genres.”  Panelists: Laure-Anne Bosselaar, David Jauss, Tim Seibles, Karin de Weille, Robert Vivian.  Standing-room only!  I arrived quite a few minutes before this panel began and still had to sit in the back and was too late to obtain the hand-outs.  Question that opened this panel: What is the emotion that makes this speaker (character) unable to stay quiet?  David Jauss’s four ways to convey emotion:
      • Direct/Abstract Statement
      • Body language and internal experience
      • Particularize the gradations of emotion
      • Tone – tone generates content
      • 4:30 pm.  “Writing Through Race.”  Panelists: David Lau and Benjamine Hale.  Unfortunately, due to personal and weather issues, this panel lost three of its contributing members.  David and Ben both read from essays that addressed questions of race and then opened the discussion to the room.  The overwhelming topic of concern was how to do we bring a multi-racial experience to our MFA programs.  Many students expressed being the only writer of color in their programs, either as student or faculty.  This led some speakers to drop from their program under the pressure and lack of understanding by their workshop-mates and faculty.  Questions of “what race is this character?” and “you can’t use dialect!” bombarded many students, leaving them feeling as though they were prevented from following their voice and also had no faculty under which to study and have support.  A small group spoke afterward about how we must encourage AWP as the director of our writing programs to take this issue of race more seriously, both in terms of representation amongst students and staff, as well as in a curriculum that teaches writers how to write through race, rather than falling prey to, as Benjamin Hale aptly referred in his talk, the “white default.”  Books of note: Griff by Percival Everrett.  Essays: “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” Jorge Luis Borges and Tone Morrison’s writings on “othering.”

Wonderful first day!  Exceptional panels!  Committed and passionate panelists.  A headache drove me home after trying to attend the Two-Year College Caucus, but I’ve heard that the keynote address by Annie Proulx was wonderful.  I will try to link a podcast to those events that I attended once they become available.