Readin' & Writin'

A return to reading

I've been disinclined to post here lately, largely because I've been overwhelmed by battling a general sense of reluctance - to take care of myself, to take care of business, to do anything at all during this never-ending winter. As I'm clawing my way out of it the past few weeks, my main focus for my limited energy has been on writing. Which is a welcome change of pace for me, and a tremendous relief. It feels as though, for months, I have been stuck, experiencing the most persistent and baffling case of writer's block. (Which, as I understand it, is really more accurately something like writer's fear or writer's reluctance.) And then, thanks to encouragement from my MFA mentor and giving myself permission to write shitty first drafts, there was an opening - which felt like nothing short of a miracle. So progress is being made and when I'm putting all my energy into writing one thing, others - such as this blog - fall by the wayside. I am not complex enough to spread the wealth around, so to speak.

But what I have been able to do, in addition to writing, is read. Something about enrolling in my MFA program has changed the way I approach it, too. I don't think I noticed that I'd stopped reading like a writer, that I'd lost that intense passion for story and characters, that I'd lost that hunger to read more, more, more.

Yet it appears that I did.

I haven't written much about my reasons for enrolling in graduate school and while they are myriad, one is to take myself seriously as a writer. That's something I've struggled with for years. And, somehow, taking myself seriously as a writer means also taking myself seriously as a reader. Full, unbridled permission to read with abandon.

I re-read The Great Gatsby and Death of a Salesman, startled to discover how much of each seemed new to me. I read George Saunders' Tenth of December and Alice Monroe's Dear Life: Stories, incredibly different collections, both exquisite. I re-read Junot Diaz's This Is How You Lose Her and co-lead an online discussion of the text.

I adored Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins and followed it swiftly with The Financial Lives of the Poets, which I enjoyed, though not quite as much. I read Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which I barreled through, though ultimately didn't find as satisfying as Atonement or Amsterdam. I read Karen Thompson Walker's lovely Age of Miracles and Louise Erdrich's stunning work, The Round House. And there were others, some required by my MFA mentor, others my choice.

I'm not usually someone who reads two books at once, but if they're different enough, my brain seems able to handle it. And so right now I'm reading both Victor LaValle's Devil in Silver and Jo Ann Beard's Boys of My Youth.

And the pile of books to-read is growing larger, many of them works I always meant to read but didn't get around to before. Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Mary Carr's The Liar's Club. David Ulin's The Lost Art of Reading seems all too fitting, and there is still one more book for our mentor group before the semester's out, Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.

It's a lot. Sometimes I get a vague sense of panic that there will never be enough time to read everything I want to. But there's also an accompanying sense of deep satisfaction, like being where you were supposed to be all the time. As though feeding yourself when you hadn't even realized just how hungry you were. And that feeling? It is truly sublime.


On writing a novel or, things forgotten along the way

I've been trying to write a novel, as you likely know all too well, for a number of years now. (Is she still talking about that?) And the main obstacle in my journey seems to be: I've never done this before. Well. I suppose we could say the real obstacle is the millions of fears dusted up by the fact that I've never done this before, but that feels a bit like splitting hairs. The thing about me as a writer is that first drafts come easily to me. I write quickly and decisively in the early throes of inspiration. Whole chunks of exposition and dialogue present themselves to me at one time and I scramble to transcribe them before my brain moves on. I've always been - for better or worse - a binge writer, as opposed to someone with daily discipline. (I'd like to be the latter. I would. Although not, apparently, enough to actually do it.)

I may have mentioned briefly in my prior "catch-up" post that I'm getting my MFA. Getting the help and the discipline I need to finish this novel was one of a few key reasons I had for pursuing that. Before I enrolled at Antioch, I had what was maybe a second draft of my novel and while I knew that there were giant holes needing patched and bridges needing built, I couldn't seem to figure out for the life of me how to approach them.

Now I'm in graduate school and I've figured it all out and gotten the book written and it'll be published any day now by a respectable imprint.

No. Not really.

But graduate school has made me re-committed to finishing this novel. It has made me re-committed to learning all I can about writing and, to that end, especially, I am devouring books like a reader as I haven't in years. It's clearer to me now what I like and what I don't like and how to make some of the jaggy-edged pieces fit in just so, how to spackle some of the holes.

And one of the real blessings is that I get to work with a mentor for each project period, or semester. Having someone focused on my work in its entirety and for more than a few days at a weekend workshop is proving priceless. I need a little hand-holding right now. Or, if not hand-holding, then I need someone shining a flashlight on the path for me.

Recently, I found myself, though not producing many new pages, finally figuring out not just what needed to be fixed but also (I think), how to fix it. It didn't come to me in a dream. No, it came together - as much as it has, so far - mainly because I gave myself permission to consider the Thinking portion of events as valid as the Writing portion of events.

I kept having to silence that loud voice in my head insisting that what I was doing, thank you very much, was actually procrastinating. Overcoming that negative self-talk might have been the biggest struggle of all. Yet, at the end of it, I had sat down, figured out a new timeline of events in the novel, made notes of all the places that need tweaked, the things that needed added and/or removed. It was a monumental moment for me as a novel writer and, so, of course...I freaked.

I became catatonic. Because it is quite one thing to finally have broken through and created for yourself a blueprint and another entirely to then have to do the work. I am not a person, it seems, who loves to do the work.

I arranged to have a phone meeting yesterday with my kind and generous mentor to discuss my blueprint and, perhaps more importantly, how to get unstuck. She helped me figure out a concrete plan for approaching this next draft - I'm to make a list of everything that needs to be done; rank each item as either "easy," "medium," or "difficult"; commit to tackling a certain number of these items per week; and when I sit down to work on them, choose whatever I feel like doing at the time.

All of that was - is - of course supremely helpful. But then she also made another suggestion, almost an aside, and it is, naturally, the thing that has most stuck with me since. She suggested I change the way I'm thinking about the writing. I've obviously got myself bogged down with thinking of this as a task, something large and unwieldy that I have to do. Instead, she suggested I approach each scene, each change asking myself, "Where is the opportunity to discover more?"

And then she said this: "Try to get back to the joy in the writing."

The joy in the writing? It has been so long since I framed this book as anything other than a task I had to finish, a thing I had to do, that I had completely forgotten - as embarrassing as it is to admit - that there is supposed to be joy in writing. Pleasure in discovery. The thrill of hammering out a good sentence, the feeling when a new character shows up and you know she's what you need. Joy.

When did I get so far away from that? How do I move back? I'm not sure yet. It's probably worthy of an entire blog post of its own. For now, though, I'm again giving myself permission to Think about it. The joy in writing. What a strange, obvious and wonderful goal.

A little open mindedness, a lot of good

It was about 15 years ago that the first of many writer friends suggested I consider doing Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. And it was just the first of many times that my reaction was: “What? That hippie shit? Not a chance.” Because I’m just naturally open-minded like that. For those of you unfamiliar with Cameron’s work – which has given her vaulted status in creative-self-help circles – it’s a 12 week program for those who consider themselves “blocked” creatively. The idea is to take a fearless look at old beliefs, excuses and self-criticism that is holding us back from achieving our creative goals – and to start practicing being “honoring” our creative selves on a daily basis.

I know. A lot of hooey, right?

I should also mention that the subtitle of The Artist’s Way is: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. At the time my friend suggested I try this program, I was brand-spankin’ new in sobriety. I was having a terrible time going from agnostic-with-atheist leanings to someone who could find a place in a 12-step recovery program that asked me to embrace the concept of a higher power. One spiritual struggle was enough. I wasn’t anywhere near ready – or open enough – to consider The Artist’s Way.

As you can probably guess by the tenor of this post – which, I confess, I am writing despite lingering feelings of sheepishness – I have recently had a mind-shift about this hooey. And if you’re as astute as I think you are, then you’ve already guessed that it’s because I’m in the process of finishing up The Artist’s Way, and I have found it – much to the chagrin of my inner judgmental, stubborn self – revolutionary.

First, let me say that I am a firm believer that everyone has to be completely ready to undertake any sort of self-help endeavor and that we all come to these places in our own time, if ever. That is, I may be copping to having sipped some Kool Aid, but I want to be clear I’m not in the business of converting others.

I just want to stick with my intention of being more honest than ever in this blog, of trying to write without fear (or despite fear) about things that I’m, well, afraid to talk about. And right there next to “pain,” which I wrote about recently, is “writing about writing.” Or, more specifically, my fears about writing and my own ability to do so.

Nothing has brought these fears closer to the forefront than my decision a few years back to try my hand at writing a novel. When I first embarked upon this project, I was incredibly rusty at writing fiction, only recently having returned from a 15-year hiatus. But I was fueled by the rediscovery of my passion for fiction and I received some terrific encouragement to continue from very generous mentors. And so I did.

At the time I was writing the first draft, I found it to be a mind-bogglingly frustrating experience. I had no idea what I was doing, but I had an idea and I would just bang away for hours at the keyboard just to get all of it out of my head. Of course, in retrospect, as I flounder in the world of rewrites, those now seem like halcyon days. It actually helped that I was unaware then of just how little I knew; I could propel forward on enthusiasm alone.

The last two years, as I have continued revising my novel (with long intervals in between efforts), attendance at workshops has also taught me just how much work I still need to do to get where a good book needs to be. Ironically, it was after a particularly invigorating and encouraging workshop last July at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival that I found myself hitting a wall, and hard.

I had in my hands some very useful, very helpful input – practically a road map for what needed fixed. Yet when I got back to the solitude of my own cave, I had a very strange experience. I felt absolutely unequal to the task before me. I would open the damn file up and stare for hours. A tsunami of self-doubt – far greater than I knew I possessed – came rushing in. I became absolutely convinced that I couldn’t possibly do this.  I spent the next few months telling people I was “struggling” with the rewrite – which was code for “avoiding.”

And that - of course, crazy universe - is when another friend suggested The Artist’s Way. While I’d been extremely fast to poo-poo the idea in the past, I was at a particularly low place, creatively-speaking. It was painful to feel so…useless. To question whether or not I had been foolishly pursuing an endeavor that I simply lacked the talent for.

Before I could give it too much thought, I picked up a copy of The Artist’s Way and, surprising even myself, I dove right in. You know what they say about desperate times. I figured if I committed myself to a 12-week artistic “recovery” program, then at least I could buy myself 12 weeks of excuses why I wasn’t writing. I can’t write and recover, man.

I’ll be the first to say that it was tough to slog through some of the earlier pages in the book, especially those that hinged on the notion that creativity is a gift from God. You know, God. The Creator. Fortunately, my 12-step background had given me loads of experience with figuring out how to take what works for me and leave the rest, and I was able to do that (mostly) successfully here.

What I didn’t expect, going in, was how difficult and painful and absolutely essential it was to do the tasks aimed at helping me identify what exactly my inner critic is rattling on about – and the source(s) of all that negative thinking. It’s one thing to know you have self-doubts. It’s another to write each and every one of them out on paper and try to trace its origin.

However, I believe that hard work is required to do our biggest growing. That’s been my experience in 15 years of sobriety, and in the past 15 weeks of doing The Artist’s Way. (Yeah, I know it’s a 12-week program, but I’ve fallen behind a few times and had to push the reset button.) Until I identified all that horrible critical noise in my head, it was impossible for me to counter it, to separate it from reality. That alone has been life-changing for me.

I really needed to be told to stop using outside validation to define whether or not I’m a creative being. I needed to stop pinning that definition on how much I’d been published or how much money I earn with my creative pursuits. How refreshing just to know that you’re a creative being just because you are. No other justification needed. Really.

It has also helped me immensely to commit to writing morning pages – a few hand-written, stream-of-consciousness pages every day, aimed at clearing your mind and jump-starting each morning with a creative nudge. My morning ramblings haven’t consistently revealed anything mind-blowing, although a few genuine moments of epiphany emerged as I was busy writing about how stupid the assignments were. What’s actually been most useful to me is to look back at the morning pages I’ve written so far and it’s a stack. A stack. I didn’t realize how much it helped to know that I can be prolific, even if it’s not with anything I’d ever want others to lay eyes on. I can produce work.

I dragged my feet and rolled my eyes heartily, too, at the instruction to take myself on an Artist Date every week. Something the focuses on or informs my artistic self, by myself, for at least one hour. I’ve done a little creative tap-dancing around what qualifies – watching a documentary or making a pie, for example – but I can also say that merely acknowledging that the creative side of me requires and deserves attention – has had very tangible side effects. I’ve become a better baker. I’m reading more for pleasure than I have in years. I re-dedicated myself to learning about photography and on January 1, started a project on my Tumblr photo blog, Learning Curve, where I try to take and post one photo a day in 2012. I’m not nearly as worried about what other people think of my photos as I once was. That’s kind of amazing for me.

The Artist’s Way and my Artist Dates are also directly responsible for my re-starting this blog, because even though I still feel very uncertain and often overwhelmed in the world of novel-writing, I realized that I needed to get back to doing the kind of writing that comes easily to me – even if it doesn’t garner a lot of readers. That’s not really the point. The point is I need to remind myself not only that I’m someone who can write, but that I’m someone who does write.

Is that, technically, artistic recovery? Who knows? And who really cares? All I know is that, for the first time in years, I’m feeling a greater sense of possibility than insecurity regarding my creative life.  I’m recognizing and prioritizing how crucial it is for me to be a creative being. It feels pretty great. And if that ain’t worth the cover price, what is?

Stuff I've Been Reading

It's fair to say that I haven't been writing a lot lately -- here or anywhere else -- because I haven't. I'm finding working on the second draft of my novel is moving at a glacial pace. I'm unsure of my footing and the ideas are coming slowly. I suppose I should take stock in the fact that it's moving at all. In the meantime, I've been hunkering down on some reading, fairly tearing through a handful of books the last couple months. Figured a quick round-up of thoughts on those could pass for a blog posting, no? Enjoy! stiff

A month or so ago, I breezed through Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers." I'd had it in the back of my mind to check it out for a while now. Yes, it's exactly as it sounds -- an exploration of what happens to bodies after we die. A graphic, often-gruesome explanation, ranging from the grave-diggers of centuries ago, to the human body parts used in auto safety testing to proposed new methods of disposing of human bodies.

I confess to having a gruesome streak in me. I watch more CSI and forensic television programs than is probably considered healthy. I once had a brief period where I devoured everything I could on serial killers and mass murders and lay awake at night absolutely terrified that Richard Ramirez, the freaky-looking satanic serial killer known as the Night Stalker, was coming to get me.

So maybe I'm the ideal reader for this book, although I think it also appeals to anyone who has a curiosity about how we, as a culture, value our vessels after life passes away. The real draw here is Roach's writing. It takes a skilled scribe to make a subject like this not only riveting, but also laugh-out-loud funny at times.  Her own squeamishness and reluctance sort of gives us permission to tag along for the ride and be thoroughly entertained as we go.

It's definitely food for thought and, at times, food for worms. (Oh, yes, I did!)

songsformissing Next up was Stewart O'Nan's "Songs for the Missing." Chris returned with it from a road trip, saying he saw it and thought I might enjoy it. Now, since I'm the sort of stubborn ass who decides not to see a great movie just because so many people have told me I SIMPLY MUST SEE IT, it's not surprising that I was a little turned off by Chris' certainty. I mean, what? Just because we've been together for a decade, he suddenly knows so much about me?

I know. It's a weird glitch I have. I'll talk to my therapist about it. Maybe.

Anyhoo, you can see where this is headed, right? I read the book and I did really enjoy it. I have to sheepishly confess that I'd never read any of O'Nan's previous books. In fact, I'd never even heard of him, but he has a number of titles to his name and, quite frankly, as someone struggling to finish one book, I think anyone who has finished more than one should somehow automatically become a household name.

"Songs for the Missing" is the story of a family coping in the aftermath of the disappearance of their eldest daughter Kim, a high-school senior. It's not quite "Lovely Bones" territory, as there's no narration from beyond the grave, but there's a spareness, a sadness that reminded me of Alice Sebold's work. I'm not sure it's a book that will change your life, but there's a compelling, harrowing sense to the prose that I found really seductive.

Make no mistake: this isn't a detective tale or your typical mystery. It's more of a character study of the people left behind -- Kim's parents, her sister, her friends -- and the ways they cope with her disappearance. I read some reviewers' complaints that not enough happens, and while that may be true for some readers, it was enough for me to walk their path for a while. Just don't tell Chris I liked it.

gateatstairsThen it arrived. It arrived. Oh, I'd been waiting for this book for so very long. Fifteen years if you wanna get technical about it: Lorrie Moore's long-awaited new novel, "A Gate at the Stairs."  I should warn you that I can't even pretend to be objective about this book. Moore's one of my all-time favorite writers. She and Amy Hempel were just two of the young female voices emerging in the early eighties, showing me that women could write and they could write like this -- in a brave, honest way I hadn't known was possible before. With humor and grace and simplicity and irony.

Her short story "How to Become A Writer" has been anthologized a gabazillion times and is one of the best-received examples of second-person prose. Its first line has stayed with me for more than 20 years and pops into my head whenever I find myself at my desk trying desperately to squeeze blood from the proverbial literary stone: "First, try to be something, anything else. " It makes me smile every time. It makes me do what Lorrie Moore always does. It makes me think, "This chick gets it."

But I digress. We were talking about "A Gate at the Stairs," right? It's lovely. So lovely. I may be in lovely with it. It's Lorrie Moore, only better than ever. The same wit and sense of irony. The same ability to observe the human condition in the small ways most likely to bring you to your knees.

Yet there's also an even greater sophistication, a greater skill to the way the words build sentences, and sentences make paragraphs and all of it just winds together in a way that makes you do crazy things. Like remember this is how you want to write when you grow up. It's enough to send a person back to her own manuscript after two week's absence with a greater sense of clarity about what it is she wants to accomplish, who her main character is and what needs to matter most.

The story? Oh, that. Yes. It's about Tassie, a Midwestern college student who goes to work as a caregiver for a disaffected couple who are in the process of adopting a mixed-race child. The backdrop is America post-9/11, as the country prepares itself for war in the Middle East and Tassie's own aimless younger brother considers enlisting in the military. It's a year of strange encounters, unlikely bonds and strange secrets that threaten to unravel everything.

Did I mention I liked it? 'Cause I did. Lorrie Moore, please do not take 15 years before your next novel. I know you have groceries to get and probably other things to do, but if it speeds up the process, I will help you. On the other hand, if this is what time produces, I'll wait.

possibilityI switched gears after Moore's book even though I have Richard Russo's "That Old Cape Magic" just begging to be broken into. I felt I wanted to cling onto whatever I got from the former and so I thought I'd go memoir with my next selection and, timing being everything, it worked out perfectly that Hope Edelman's "The Possibility of Everything" was out by the time I finished "A Gate at the Stairs."

I have a history with Edelman, which is not nearly as impressive and/or insidious as it sounds. I read her New York Times best-seller "Motherless Daughters" right after my mother died in 2003. The following year, when I decided to take a class at the Iowa Writer's Workshop Summer Writing Festival, it seemed serendipitous that Edelman was teaching a memoir workshop. Then I discovered that she had also roommates in college with a friend of ours and it all seemed like it was meant to be.

A couple of years ago, I took a fiction course in Iowa while another friend took a class with Edelman where she discussed the project she was working on then: a memoir about taking her three-year-old daughter to Belize to be healed by a shaman. In-ter-esting, I thought. And when I saw it was being published last month, I jumped right on it.

In 2000, Edelman's daughter developed a new imaginary friend, whose emergence touched off some behavior in Maya that Edelman found increasingly disturbing. With a husband working long, hard hours and disengaged from the day-to-day parenting, Edelman's sense of isolation and concern grew. When the family decided a vacation was just the thing they needed -- and Belize the perfect destination -- they also decide to take Maya to see a shaman to "heal" her.

I realize that on the surface this sounds like crazy talk. Children have imaginary friends all the time and it doesn't mean that they're possessed by evil spirits. But that's precisely what makes this book interesting. Edelman is fiercely honest about her own skepticism and how it interplays with her maternal instincts that something is very wrong with her child -- and the willingness to be open to anything, things she never would have thought possible, to make Maya okay.

Set against the magical, mysterious backdrop of Belize and its ancient Mayan culture, a disconnected family finds ways to heal. Edelman gamely and gracefully shares her own reluctance to try on ideas about faith and grace that she finds both confusing and embarrassing. There's something really endearing about Edelman's willingness to talk about something she's perfectly aware many people will find nutty. And I think that's ultimately what makes the book such a good read.

Next up for me? I've pushed Russo back again, poor thing, still thinking I need to keep "A Gate at the Stairs" more fresh in my mind while I write right now. In the meantime, I'm going for Esmerelda Santiago's memoir, "When I Was Puerto Rican." Then maybe Russo'll get his chance or I'm on to Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food."

And that's you all up to date on my reading. Luck you!

Because I'm inspirational, that's why.

ty4 A few months ago, I got an email from Crate & Barrel thanking me for my purchases over the past year -- in other words, giving me props for snapping up the clearance page stuff other people passed on. They offered me a $25 gift card to spend how I saw fit at At first, I thought it might be a bit of a bogus cross-promotion where I'd click a button and wind up inadvertantly agreeing to buy an $800 patio loveseat. So, of course, I did it anyway. (I've since learned that this is an award-winning effort Crate & Barrel's been making for the past few years, issuing these gift cards so that customers can help direct how the company spends its charitable contributions. Which I think is very cool. Would that more companies follow suit.)

Anyway, I followed the link and was intrigued to find that this is a website where teachers, mostly from high poverty schools,  post pleas for financial help purchasing specific supplies -- books, teaching tools, etc. I picked a project somewhat randomly. It was near the top of the list and it caught my eye. A teacher in Northern California needed $24 more to meet her goal of buying copies of Judy Blume's Superfudge for her class.


I love this one from my pal, Sal. Why does he like books? "Maybe because some are funny."

The project piqued my interest on three different levels. First, my mother was a teacher who felt very passionately about imparting to her students the love of reading. I figured my meager and free (to me) donation would honor her in some small way. Second, I was nuts about Judy Blume's books as a kid and I remember Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge were particular faves. And third, my donation would complete the amount the teacher requested and I do like to be a closer!

I'd completely forgotten about the project I'd selected when I fetched my mail today. In it I found a thick white envelope from and with the following words printed on the outside:  "Hurray! Your student thank-you letters for your donation have arrived!" I vaguely recalled that this was part of the deal -- getting a thank you from the class or the teacher.


"When I grow up I'm going to be just like you - donate stuff to class rooms. Sincerely, Eunice." Yes, Eunice, because that's what I am best known for.

Still, I didn't expect what I found inside -- 24 individual hand-written thank you notes addressed to me. With names and drawings and notes about why they liked the book. I should mention that I'm an unbelievable sucker for a thank you note. I was raised in a household where writing them was mandatory and to skip them an unthinkable sin on par with putting your elbows on the table during dinner time. (Guess you had to be there.) Now it seems there are so few people who write them that to get any at all is always a treat. To get a thick envelope full of them from a bunch of little kids who are loving their books is pretty remarkable.

ty3Kids are so wise, aren't they?

I'm not saying the expectation of thanks is a reason to consider donating to I'm just saying it doesn't hurt.

For G.

I think we all have those friends who were really, really important to us at one point in time, but then we lose touch, our good intentions falling by the wayside. Maybe you think of them a lot, meaning to get back in touch, half-heartedly Googling their names, expecting to see great things popping up and puzzling over why there's nothing. I had a strange set of occurences over the past few days involving one of my friends like that. I met G. my senior year of college in a writing workshop -- and at a place in time -- that was full of inspiration and influence on me, as writer. He was older than most of us in the workshop -- meaning, he was 26 or 27 when we were all just 21. At that point in life, those extra few years were daunting. G. somehow made them seem even more so, having packed so much life and knowledge into that handful of years. Not only did he write like a fiend, but he read like one too, thought about writing, lived The Life. On top of it all, he was even married, his wife beautiful and lively. It was almost more than we could fathom.

G. was at the center of what became, for a few years, a very tight group of writers. In truth, as time wore on and people filtered in and out, we were really a more dedicated group of drinkers than just about anything else. We met on Tuesday nights at a pub called McClain's in St. Louis and G. treated us poor types generously, buying rounds and pitchers and shots -- and the occasional tray of nachos with which to line our stomachs -- out of the tips he made tending bar at an upscale hotel downtown.

When I first met him in that writing workshop, I was struck by his handsome face and his ebullient personality and cowed by his seeming endless knowledge about writing. He was also the first person to be unabashedly, outrageously supportive of my writing and even though I took a long, long break from writing fiction, I don't think I ever would have returned to it if I hadn't carried a bit of G's faith in me that entire time.

After college, in the early 90's, I moved for a year to Asheville, NC.  While I was there, G. sent me letters, updates on his Life, his reading and his obsession with our status as "fin de siecle" writers, those responsible for summing up a century's experience with our words. It was all a bit more than I could take. By that point, all the thinking about writing was exhausting to me. It interfered with my drinking, which fast became a much more important element to me.

I want to get history and all the details right but so much of it is vague. I think I got together with G. a few times after I moved back to St. Louis. I'm certain we did far less talking about writing and more no-frills drinking. I know he was already starting to look pale and drained by the lifestyle. And I believe the last time I saw him, he was waiting tables at a restaurant in a St. Louis mall. He didn't have much time to chat, but I had the feeling he wouldn't have stopped long even if he did. I was a handful of years sober then, although I'm not sure he knew, and while I liked happening upon him, he was a reminder of a time in my life I was trying to put behind me.

I've still thought about G. a lot in the 8 or 9 years since. I find myself Googling his name every once in a while, or searching for it on Amazon, expecting to find a book or a collection of short stories. I did that on Monday and, as always, came up empty-handed. That same day, on Facebook, I connected with a mutual friend from those Tuesday night pub sessions. In his message to me, the friend mentioned that while it had been quite a while since he heard about G., he was still saddened greatly by it.

I knew right away that G. was dead and, in some part of me, I also knew right away that alcohol had played a part. I did some online research, found G.'s obituary from July 2006.  I tracked down his wife -- his ex for most of the past decade --  and she confirmed that it had indeed been a drinking-related death. She offered no specifics and I didn't really need them. Yesterday, St. Patrick's Day, would have been G's 43rd birthday.

I'm not sure I can explain to you the very specific type of sadness I felt, but I'm mourning on a lot of different levels. One, of course, is the all-too-familiar sadness we all feel for any bright and shining star, anyone whose promise is stunted by tragedy. I'm also so sad for G.'s family, especially the two young daughters he left behind. I don't know what the last years of G.'s life were, but I hope they grow up knowing that their dad was kind and warm and smart as hell and good and gregarious and lived life at breakneck speed.

Then there's also the specific loss and sadness of losing yet another friend to the battle with addiction. I'm never sure I need another reminder of how awful and cruel and undiscerning alcoholism is, how unfair it is (and how, in the end, that doesn't make any difference.) But they just keep coming anyway. It's a hazard of the business, so to speak.

I've missed G. in a very vague way over the years, in a very sporadic, superficial manner. Selfishly, I missed him as my cheerleader and as the first person to really root for my writing. Even now, when I write, I could use him egging me on, so generously spending hours and hours convincing me that something of value was flowing from my brain. In fact, I had thought that if I ever wrapped up this first draft of my novel, I'd try to seek him out and get his insight and guidance. Now that I know him gone, I miss him in 800 other ways. Ways that involve fear and anger and sadness and the certain knowledge that the Amazon searches for him will always come up empty.

I did it.

It's gone. The application for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony has left the building. And not a moment too soon, I might add. I'm feeling kind of panicky, a little bit "Oh my God, what did I forget? I know! I forgot to write something good." It's out of my hands now. And while it did cost me a bit more than just the cost of stamps -- specifically, $30 in Fed Ex fees to ensure it arrives the day before deadline, plus a $10 app fee -- I'm hoping it's still worth it. Because what would it cost me not to have tried? Yeah, nothing. But whatever.

I'd like to thank those of you who helped kick me in the rear and make sure I gave this a shot. You know who you are. But just in case, I'll tell you. You are: Julia M. (whose application should be hitting the Fed Ex boxes tomorrow, no?), Madeline and Kathi. Thanks for your support and encouragement.

I shall now begin the "wait and see" portion of events which everyone knows is my real strong suit....

You can't win if you don't play

So says the old adage and it's variant: you can't succeed if you don't try. Which is all well and good but it does bring up another argument, a perspective far more comfortable to my glass-half-wait-where's-my-glass? mindset: you can't fail if you don't try. This mode of thinking stops me from trying a million, zillion things. Last year, I was so afraid of losing I didn't bother entering a small photo contest friends encouraged me to try. I was so certain everyone else's photos would be far superior to mine. When they announced the winners, I was filled with immediate regret. The winning photos were fine, some even good. But I would have stood a really good chance of winning with the shots I had selected. Unfortunately, we'll never know as I chose the comfort of catatonia instead.

I'm mentioning all of this because I'm trying to bring myself to apply for something. It's this: a summer fellowship at the Norman Mailer's Writers Colony in Provincetown, Mass.  It's an amazing opportunity. Twenty-eight days to focus on writing and, perhaps even more important for me at this point in time, to discuss writing and receive feedback on my work. It's even a free ride. Applications are due March 10. One week from today.

The hitch? They pick seven writers for this session. And my mind's already decided that I won't be one of them. I'm already so sure that I won't make the cut that I'm in the process of talking myself out of submitting an application. Yes, Dr. Freud, I know this is fear talking, but when it comes to writing, I have so much of it. It's easier to stay in my little box and not give it a shot.


Why do I feel like this is a scene in a movie where triumphant, bass-pumping music will build in the background as I realize I've got to give it a shot? One shot. One opportunity. Yes, Eminem would be involved.

And why am I writing about this here? For one thing, just to get it off my chest. But, more importantly, because it's been my experience that if I write something here, at least one or two of you reach out and keep me accountable. What I'm saying is, I'll do it. I'm going to do it. I'm going to apply and I'm going to tell you that I'm going to apply, which means that if I don't get in, I have to be willing to cop to that and deal with the ramifications of not being good enough and people knowing that I'm not.

Maybe it will all help me take one step closer to being someone who believes that trying is worth something all on its own.

Yeah. Maybe.

A milestone, of sorts

Some months ago, when I sheepishly embarked on the experiment to see if I have a novel in me, I did some research on word counts. I don't remember where I read it, but a couple of sources seemed to suggest that 50,000 words was the minimum for bridging the gap between novel and novella. And it's the count NaNoWriMo uses for their writers. The longest short story I'd ever written was about 1/12th of that, so I really wasn't sure I had it in me. But I figured it was a good benchmark, a good test to see if -- regardless of quality -- I was even capable of committing to such a project, producing that volume of writing.

As of yesterday, it turns out that I am. I did. After a week of pretty focused pushing-through, even when it felt like what I was hammering out was crap that wouldn't survive the next draft, I crossed the threshold of 50,000 words.

Man. That felt like...something.

I don't know quite where I'm going from here, but I'm working my way through the chapters in chronological order in the hopes of arriving at a coherent enough first draft that I can get it in front of some other people and start getting feedback. There is so much I still haven't figured out, so much I'm not sure about, so many holes that need filled. But I'm feeling a little more capable than I did a few months ago. And I'll take that for now.


Are you tired? I'm tired. I spend a lot of time tired. Sigh.Don't know if it's this metabolic system crap starting up again or the winter blue settling in. Either way, I haven't much to report. On the writing front, I'm scraping my way out of a rut. I've found myself about 2/3 of the way through the first draft of this supposed novel I'm writing and hitting a bit of a brick wall, plot-wise. Had to go back to the drawing board recently and rework my outline for the last third of the draft. I'm still not entirely sure how things fall into place, but I've got enough of a vision to keep moving forward, I think. And I believe I've identified some holes that will need to be plugged.

This is a daunting and humbling project, my friends.

I definitely need a little accountability to keep me on task. It's too easy to get distracted, to let my fear talk me into sitting on the couch and knitting rather than tapping out some more sentences. I'm going to follow a friend's suggestion and ask a couple of my writer friends to enter into a contract of sorts with me. I'm going to identify some deadline goals and ask them to help keep me accountable, to encourage me and stay in contact with me along the path so this doesn't feel like such a lonely endeavor with a fuzzy grey ending.

Here's what I'm thinking: first draft done by the end of January. That would require me to pick up the pace substantially. Otherwise, at the rate I'm going currently, dragging my feet, it would be a lot longer before I wrap up the first draft. And I can't stand the thought of that.

On an unrelated note, I dragged out and dusted off my sewing machine yesterday. It's been a long, long time since I sewed. Just another thing that fell victim to health problems. But it feels good to have it out. I've a couple of brave projects I want to get done for Christmas, which involve drafting my own pattern which is difficult and sometimes confusing. And I'm really kind of excited about it. Yeah, I said it. Excited.

Happy NaNoWriMo

Okay, so technically NaNoWriMo started 12 days ago, but I've always been a little slow to the draw. What does it all mean, you ask? Why, it's National Novel Writing Month, silly! An amazing annual event where people pledge online to produce a full first-draft of a novel during the month of November. Every year, I think about doing it, and every year I chicken and/or flake out. This year is no exception. However, the friends I know who are participating in NaNoWriMo -- brave souls all -- are at least serving as grand inspiration. If they, and countless others, can commit to being this dedicated for a month, then so can I. Sort of.

You might remember me babbling on a few months ago about how I'd started writing my first novel. Or maybe you didn't notice because I was too shy about it to speak above a whisper. Well, I started off on a pretty good roll. I hit the ground running. I knocked out 90 pages in no time. And then I ran out of gas.

Part of it was due to some physical stuff that sidelined me for nearly three months, leaving me with barely enough energy to bathe, let alone focus on anything. That part probably couldn't have been helped. However, I also made the mistake of reading, re-reading and editing major portions of the first few chapters instead of just barrelling through and finishing the entire first draft. I got hung up on details, I got overly critical of and relentlessly negative about what I'd produced instead of -- and, yes, it makes me want to puke when I say this -- nurturing it.

So I did what any self-respecting first-time novelist would do in that situation: I just stopped writing. I was catatonic. If I knew where the story was heading, I couldn't come up with the words to get me there. If I came up with a sentence, I didn't know where it was all heading. Fortunately, even in the midst of this madness -- which kept me up nights worrying about not writing -- I never packed it in mentally. I just couldn't shake the story or the narrator and I suppose I knew on some level that I'd return to it at some point. I just wasn't sure it would be in this lifetime. That's where NaNoWriMo came in. I couldn't fathom the idea of starting -- and completing -- a whole new novel, from scratch. But I could certainly use it as inspiration to commit to some daily writing of my own.

I've been shooting for 500 words a day. I figure if it worked for Hemingway, it might be good enough for me. And so far it has been. I also thought it might do me some good on the accountability tip to at least write about that commitment here on my blog. I figure the more people I tell, the better chance I have of actually following through.

So there you have it. I'm writing a novel. Or trying to. I'm committing to 500 words a day. Not good words. Not even words that make sense. Not even words I'll necessarily keep. Just 500 words, at least, that keep the project in motion. As my good friend Margaret often says, "The universe rewards forward progress." I think that applies here too. I just want to finish a first draft so I can be freed up to worry about the details, rewriting and editing.

I'm also leaning heavily on this quote by author E.L. Doctorow about the process of writing a novel: "It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

I'm counting on it.

At Bear River

Sun over Lake Walloon

Among the many, many reasons you should feel sorry for me is the fact that I never went to camp as a child. In Britain, people just didn't send their kids off to camp. (They may today, but I'm not certain.) When we moved to the states when I was about 10, camp was a distinctly American tradition, largely saved for people who had the means and, I thought, didn't like their kids so much. So while a handful of my friends trotted off to camp for weeks on end during the summer, I remained behind, largely puzzled and only mildly envious. I wasn't sure I'd enjoy camp nor was I sure why kids would want to sleep in bug-filled cabins, swim in murky lakes and fashion macrame bracelets when they could stay indoors all summer watching sitcoms.

So you can imagine it was a little odd and, surprisingly, a little thrilling for me to shop for my trip up north to the Bear River Writer's Conference at Camp Michigania last weekend. As I tossed bug spray into my basket at Target and mulled over the right flashlight to take (who knew there were so many flashlights?), Chris assured me that if I got lonely and the other writers made fun of me, I could come home at anytime.

Chairs outside the camp dining hall

As it turns out, the conference was a terrific experience. For the past few years, I've made a point of attending a summer writing workshop, saving my pennies and signing up for five-day sessions at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. But at the urging of the generous and lovely Nick Delbanco, I opted for Bear River this year -- largely because the special guest was, as I've noted here, one of my favorite authors, Amy Hempel.

One of the unique things about Bear River, as compared with other writing conferences and workshops, is that it focuses squarely on producing new work. It's not the place to drag along the manuscript you've been working on merely to expose it to a new set of critical eyes -- or as often happens, let's face it, in the hopes of receiving unqualified praise and encouragement. Instead, it's about inspiration, greasing the wheel and writing on the spot. Which is just as well, because I'm so far behind where I'd like to be with my current writing project that being in an environment that forced me to exercise my writing muscles was precisely what I needed.

Woods at Camp Michigania

I took a workshop on Painting and Fiction with Elizabeth Kostova, she of the best-selling vampire epic, The Historian. It was, in retrospect, perhaps not precisely the right workshop for me. While I thought we would focus on how the process of writing compares with the process of painting, and how the latter could inform and influence the former, the workshop leaned more strongly towards the use of paintings in our writing -- as inspiration but, more directly, as subject. And I confess to being surprised by the number of people in our ten-person group who were specifically interested in including paintings in their fiction, for the most part in historical novels.

But the experience of attending Bear River was still good for me for two key reasons. First, I tend to forget that I know how to write. As silly as that may sound, and despite the fact I make my living as a freelancer, I do. I get so cowed by my fears and what feels like the weight of writing that I forget I'm even capable of it. Confidence among writers -- more specifically, among this writer -- is so fleeting, so difficult to maintain. Our free writing exercises and our homework, as rusty and slap shod as they were given time restraints, reminded me that I can do this, that I can string words together.

Kayaks on the shore of Lake Walloon

The second reason is that I remembered I like to be around people and that I am, for the most part, pretty good at it. As someone still relatively new to Ann Arbor and who works from home, I spend a tremendous amount of time by myself. Most of my time, in fact. Again, my memory proves tricky and, locked away in my office typing on my keyboard, I forget that I can meet new people, that I can make conversation with strangers and that I am, at least as a general proposition, likeable. I forget that I'm funny. I forget that I can find things in common with writers from all different backgrounds, from all walks of life, with all different interests. I was fortunate to be paired with cabin mates who were friendly and funny and I crossed paths with all sorts of interesting folk I'm grateful to have known, however briefly.

I think when I sit at home alone in my office, my fear can so easily eclipse my passion and, as a result, my productivity (which is weak under the best of circumstances) grinds to a halt. Over dinner the night of my return, Chris noted the extent to which I come home from these things energized and excited about writing and he suggested I look for at least one more to attend during the year. Such a smart man that husband of mine. (If you have any suggestions for great writing workshops, perhaps during the winter to balance my summer excursion, please let me know!)

Chair overlooking Lake Walloon

Of course, the real initial draw for me to Bear River was the chance to meet Amy Hempel. She is, as I've noted here, pretty much the reason I wanted to become a writer. And when I glimpsed her across the room the first night -- petite and pretty beneath a mass of long white hair -- I was practically catatonic. I became a bumbling dork, moving closer to where she sat and glancing furtively at her out of the corner of my eye.

By the second day I worked up the courage to assault her, just as she was on the way into the craft talk she was scheduled to give. Clutching my hard copy of her collected stories, I blabbered on, slathering her with praise and actually (I kid you not) getting misty as I spoke with her. She was, fortunately and not surprisingly, extremely gracious and was kind enough to sign my book rather than having me escorted from the building.

I have to say, even in my starry-eyed state, I found her craft talk a little hard to follow. She warned us at the start that it would not be linear as she doesn't think in a linear way and, in turn, doesn't write linear stories. And while that's part of what I admire most about her stories -- along with her use of humor and pathos and her ability to plum the depths of emotion without being sentimental -- it doesn't necessarily make for a riveting craft talk. I came away with a page full of notes that included the names of poets she likes, some quotes from writers and not much sense of how Amy Hempel writes or how to apply it all to my own writing life. While a tad disappointing, it was also somehow comforting. I'm not sure that I want my writers to be completely polished, to be dazzling orators, to be good at every mode of expression. It helps to know they are imperfect in life, even as I may make them perfect on the page.

Hempel also did a reading in the nearby town of Petoskey, along with the very funny and talented poet Jim Daniels, at the Crooked Tree Arts Center. It was a brief but enjoyable reading and the Center is stunning -- a Victorian church repurposed, and beautifully so, into a community Arts Center with a small stage and gallery space. I have a feeling the world might be a much better place if we repurposed all the churches in this manner. (We also had time to visit the current show, a collection of photographer Bill Eppridge's 1968 campaign photos of Robert F. Kennedy. Extremely moving and while it could be argued that I've been crying at everything of late, I'm certain this would have yielded the same results under any circumstances.)

Cabin 14, Lake Michigania

The Bear River experience was so different from that of the Iowa workshops I've attended and, at the risk of blasphemy (although, given the previous paragraph, that may seem a disingenuous concern), I enjoyed it far more. At Iowa, the workshops and homework seemed a bit more intensive, but once you're outside of the classroom, you're largely on your own. Everyone stays different places and no meals are provided and although the isolation can prove productive, it can also be, well, extremely isolating.

At Bear River, you share a cabin (that's mine above, #14) with other writers and take all your meals in the dining hall. (You can, of course, skip them if you like and wander off grounds or hole up in your cabin with a bag of nuts, so to speak.) The result is a much greater sense of community. With about 90 attendees, by the end of four days, you know just about everyone by sight if not by name. And while I'm blaspheming, I'll even go so far as to suggest that, in my limited experience, the overall talent at Bear River was superior to what I've encountered thus far at Iowa. Again, no offense. To anyone. Anywhere. Ever.

Foggy morning outside Education Center

In addition, the setting is so bucolic, with meandering camp grounds along the shore of the same Lake Walloon that inspired Hemingway. I found it a great deal more inspiring than the campus of the University of Iowa, with its sterile air-conditioned classrooms, and the surrounding streets of Iowa City. (No offense, Iowa City.) Even on the rainy days -- and two out of the four were overcast and drizzly -- there was a mysterious fog that settled over Camp Michigania of precisely the sort we writers enjoy. Each morning, whether the lake was illuminated by the beating sun or hidden by mist, I felt a deep sense of peace as I trudged through the wet grass, warm coffee in hand, across the wooden foot bridge to my workshop in north camp. I don't necessarily make a habit of communing with nature -- we've found we don't often have much to say to one another -- but it was beautiful and quiet and I loved it.

The bridge to north camp at Bear River

On the last day, as tends to happen at these things, participants signed up to read their work. (I never sign up for these things; I'm never sure I have anything I want to hear myself read.) While these things are always hit and miss, I was blown away by some of the writing, and especially moved by the funny, smart, emotionally surprising work of the Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam team members who were there. I'd seen these teenage boys bumbling around camp for three days, wondering who on earth were these yahoos playing football with a soda bottle on the front lawn -- only to be wowed into reticence and deep admiration by their rhythm, vocabularies, perspectives and humor. (If you're in Ann Arbor, you should find a way to check them out.)

Unfortunately, a pall was cast over our last afternoon when a woman suffered what turned out to be a cerebral hemorrhage while reading her poem. It was scary and threw everyone off and even though the evening's reading continued as scheduled, I think we were all a bit shaken and worried. We learned at breakfast our last day, before heading out, that she'd been airlifted to a hospital in Detroit and was in critical care. Should anything awful happen as a result, I hope there's some comfort to be taken in the fact that she was doing what she loved when tragedy struck.

No Mean City

Roger Main, 1958. "Children, The Gorbals, Glasgow."

On our trip to Glasgow earlier this month, I was seated on our Detroit-to-Amsterdam leg across the aisle from two Scottish women. Give a cheery smile to a Scots woman and you'll likely wind up in conversation that covers everything but the kitchen sink, as I did with these two nice women -- both of whom were from a small town outside Glasgow and had wound up in Fort Wayne, Ind. where they'd met through a mutual acquaintance. Our chatter about Glasgow included a mention of the Gorbals, the city's infamous former slums internationally known for their poverty and violence , and one of them asked if I'd read the book "No Mean City."

I hadn't, but I largely forgot about our conversation until Chris and I visited the People's Palace, a small museum covering Glasgow's "social history." Included in the compact museum were a few displays about life in Glasgow's slums in the first half of the 20th Century and the book popped back into my mind. At the Glasgow airport, before we headed home, I happened upon a copy of "No Mean City" at a book shop and although I was pressed for room in my carry-on, I snapped it up.

The book, which I finished last night, was first published in 1935 and it tells the story of Johnnie Stark, a gang member in the Gorbals who gains his rise to fame as the Razor King, so called for his prowess with sharp weaponry. And it's a terrible, terrible book. I mean, it's a bad book -- at least in terms of any literary merit. The plotting and pacing is wildly inconsistent, the language ricochets from nearly incomprehensible slang to overly flowery prose and the events are, at times, literally enough to make you laugh out loud.

Apparently "No Mean City" was written first as a manuscript by one A. McArthur, an unemployed denizen of the Gorbals in the 1920s. It somehow fell into the lap of an London journalist named H. Kingsley Long who felt that the manuscript, though in desperate need of tidying up, was a scathing, relentless and accurate portrayal of the violence and poverty of the Gorbals. (Upon learning this, I admit that I'm dying to know what it must have looked like before Long got a hold of it. )

And it's precisely this fascinating and ugly glimpse into that kept me reading despite how terrible it is. I left Glasgow when I was ten, but as an adult I've developed both an appreciation for and curiosity about the city of my birth. Glasgow's a funny place. And as embarrassed as I am to admit it, at no point during my childhood did I understand that the area I was raised in, the West End, was a world away from the way muc of the rest of the city lived and had lived. We were middle class to be sure, but in a city where even a small gap between the "classes" was massive and a matter of great import, a source of terrific pride.

A little history, if you'll allow me... During the Victorian Era, it enjoyed a prosperity (largely due to the shipyards) that earned it the nickname the "second city of the Empire" -- after London, of course -- and it boasts some of the most stunning period architecture you'll see anywhere in Europe.

At the end of the 19th Century, immigrants flocked to Glasgow to look for work, many taking up residence in the Gorbals, packed into overcrowded tenement buildings with little or no sanitation. Glasgow was hard hit in the recession following World War I and the ensuing depression and conditions in the Gorbals continued to worsen. It is a fascinating microcosm of the hopelessness and despair of inescapable poverty. And, for all its faults, "No Mean City" certainly paints that picture with an insider's brush.

Some of the Glaswegian slang -- commonly known as "the patter" -- proved tough for me to penetrate and I'm relatively familiar with much Scot speak. It did make for some entertaining read-aloud scenes to keep Chris and me entertained as I read and it has expanded our own vocabulary. (Chris now refers to me as his "fine bit stuff" and threatens to give me a "sherricking" if I ever cross him.)

"No Mean City" is not an easy read -- mostly because the writing is so bad and the plot moves in fits and starts. (Also, it's tough to find anyone to root for, especially the main character and his idiot wife, Lizzie.) And maybe it wouldn't hold the least bit of interest for anyone who doesn't know or care about Glasgow at all but I find in writing this post that I have a strange affection for the book... now that it's finished and I don't have to read another page.

The Gorbals still exists in name, but it's my understanding that the City of Glasgow went to great pains -- and expense -- to try to erase the history and negative reputation of the area, which had continued to be a sore point in its strong Scottish pride well into the 20th Century. In the 1980s, it was still considered one of the most dangerous areas of the United Kingdom. Not sure where it stands today, but there are a couple

In summary

Is it just me or is this blog slow to load lately? I don't know if it's a function of my internet connection, but it seems to be taking a long time. Same with the Word Press dashboard page where I pen these entries. Slow, slow, slow. I'd assume it's just that my hosting site sucks but I haven't changed it and I don't think it was this bad before. Maybe I'm just growing more impatient . But if you're having problems with it, I'd like to know. Comments, please! Let's see, where were we? A little update, since it's been a while since I last blogged...

Chris and I celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary on Monday, although the official observation was last night, when we headed into The Big City (Detroit) to see Eddie Izzard at the Detroit Opera House. The venue is really beautiful, incredibly renovated, absolutely gorgeous in that over-the-top sort of way. It's also pretty huge, which becomes overwhelmingly evident when a sole figure takes the stage and the entire sold-out crowd goes mad with applause.

Izzard was incredibly funny although, sadly, not in cross-dress for this tour. Not that it would have made much difference, since our seats were way up in the balcony and he could have been wearing Kabuki masks and we wouldn't have been able to tell. It's a credit to his literate, rapid-fire style of comedy that he was able to hold us all rapt, keep us doubled over, alone on a stage without set, even when we couldn't make out his facial expressions.

He's just such a vibrant, energetic person, an equal opportunity skewer-er and this tour his focus is on religion, civilization, man's inhumanity to man throughout the ages. You'd be hard pressed to find another comedian with his grasp of history, which is all then filtered through Izzard's insane brain, slathered with a hefty dose of psychedelic imagination and delivered with frenetic energy and generous helpings of ad libs.

What else, what else? Me, I've been a little on the "meh" front lately. For those who are keeping track, I'm still coping with the fall out from getting off Effexor (my fibromyalgia medicine). I've been off it for a couple of months now, but apparently it can take many, many months -- and, given how long I was on it, perhaps more than a year -- for my system to really "reset" and learn to function without it. It's improving, I think, but I'm still ridiculously weepy, and often irritable.

I'm adjusting more to the new pain meds; don't get quite as tired as I did before. In fact, the past few nights I've battled some wicked insomnia which has left me feeling hit by a truck during the day. But I suspect that's in large part due to my ongoing battle with sugar, which I -- for those keeping score -- I am currently losing in a big way. Blech.

I'm gearing up to head up to Camp Michigania at the end of next week for the Bear River Writer's Conference. My workshop is led by Elizabeth Kostova, she of the ridiculously best-selling vampire novel "The Historian." (I know, I know, I'm the least vampire-oriented girl on the planet, but I thought she might be a breath of fresh air.) I thought it was going to be sort of a straight-up fiction-writing workshop but apparently the title -- which I didn't know before I signed up -- is "Fiction and Painting," and will explore the similarities between the way painters paint and writers write. Huh. Guess we'll see about all that.

I'm still more jazzed than anything about the prospect of meeting (or at least being in the same room as) Amy Hempel. I'm going to take my copy of her collected short stories and see if I can't weasel a signature. I'm such a dork that way! Yeah, but only that way.

Things I love: Junot Diaz edition

It's been a long time since I've picked up a book and been so entertained I can't wait to steal away, if only for a few moments, to devour another page. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Pulitzer-winning first novel from acclaimed short story writer Junot Diaz, is the kind of book you fight through sleep to read, a flashy, heartbreaking, funny, intelligent family saga about a Dominican family in New York. Unapologetic in its refusal to cater to those unfamiliar with Dominican slang, astoundingly original in voice and scope and dishing out devastating foot-noted history lessons about the Dominican Republic with irreverent flair, this is a gem of a book. In other words, you should read it. (Check out this New York Times review for further proof.) And while this tour de force is enough to make an aspiring writer chuck aside her ambition in defeat, Diaz's honest recounting of the "dozens of times [he] had quit this novel only to restart it" in this Wall Street Journal profile proves ultimately endearing and inspiring. Diaz claims to still be scared of writing but says, of his life post-Pulitizer, "what's changed is now I have hope I can write something else."

It strikes me that the last two writers I've posted about here, Diaz and Lahiri, are both writers who speak frankly about how hard this business of writing is -- but, ultimately, that it brings hope. I like that. I need that. It makes me feel not so alone in my struggles to put words on the page and reminds me that there is a reason for doing so.

I'm sexy

I don't remember a lot of things. I have a memory like a sieve. (Except, oddly enough, for anything before the age of around 18, including the plot of every sitcom episode I ever watched as a child. Apparently, after that, my brain was full.) Thus, it was a surprise to me -- and a pleasant one at that -- to learn I've been credited with inspiring the theme for the soon-to-be-released latest issue of 52nd City, my favorite literary mag. Actually, since the theme of the new issue is "sexy," I should probably clarify that the 52nd City website credits me with suggesting the theme, as opposed to inspiring it. That's a big difference, I realize, as I write this. The latter could be confusing, particularly to anyone who's ever actually met me.

Even more thrilling than this claim to fame -- and the very fact that a new issue is imminent -- is that I have a piece in the issue. It's a pretty short piece about an encounter I had with a woman at the St. Louis Greyhound bus station about five years ago. I actually tried to expand it, to fictionalize it to make it more resonant. But, in the end, I hope (and think) that it's best left alone, as an unembellished glimpse at a brief, awkward moment in time.

To find out, you'll need to get your paws on the new issue and I can't think of a better way to do so than to attend the release party, this Saturday, April 26 at Snowflake. Now, having been out of St. Louis for a few years now, I don't know what a Snowflake is, but it sounds cool and refreshing, and that seems reason enough to go. From the 52nd City website, the event details are as follows:

52nd City Sexy Issue Release Where: Snowflake, 3156 Cherokee Street When: Saturday, April 26, 2008 Time: 4:00-7:00pm Admission: Free What's classier than Playboy and Maxim and much easier to hide under your mattress or in your sock drawer? SEXY--52nd City Magazine's ninth issue. Join us at the Snowflake on Saturday, April 26 from 4 to 7 p.m. for some delightfully cheeky food, drink, music, and entertainment. This issue includes a free CD from the SOUND issue--and a party at Snowflake never disappoints.

52nd City is also making some big changes after this issue -- they'll be going to a free distribution model. Personally, I have some mixed feelings about it -- I hate that people seem so reluctant to pay a decent and fair price for good writing. But I hope the increased circulation will attract even more advertisers and help ease the editors pain, eking by as they do by the skin of their teeth each month to pay the costs of producing this lovely-looking product.

It's worth noting that contributors are not paid for their submissions, so it's not like the writers or the editors make a penny. It's truly a labor of love. Thus, if you are a fan of writers and writing, of St. Louis, of art, of independent publishing, of me, of my cats, of being acknowledged for your support of said things, please note that there is now a Paypal button on the front page of 52nd City's website and you can make a contribution to the print fund, no matter how small (or big, of course), to help keep this gem afloat. I'd consider it a personal favor.

Also, on an entirely unrelated note, I just ate the most sublime avocado. Perfectly ripe, not even a bit brown around the edges. Thank you, nature. Thank you very much.