Dear Jackass

I’m in the process of moving. Like most people, I hate the idea of packing everything up because it requires a lot of time and energy. I do, however, love the necessity of going through everything to see what objects I once deemed necessary to hang on to. I found that I had made nice folders containing old syllabi, class readings, writing exercises, and manuscripts from classes I took at UW-Milwaukee. The class folder I just went through was from my Intro to Fiction course. Me writing fiction is a silly thing when I think about it. The true fiction that I wrote seems very silly. I never have a clear picture of where I want my fiction to go, much less a greater moral or deeper truth to the piece. Anything readers claimed to have found in my fiction was a product of their active imaginations and literally nothing I had intended. I sort of felt like I was playing a joke on the readers. “Haha, this piece is about nothing. Good luck finding meaning in it!” I wonder if I’m the only writer to feel like that. It’s been a while since I’ve written fiction, but I remember just letting the story go where it wanted to. 

I was a moderator on a fiction board for a writing forum. I had posted a story about a guy who kept pacing back and forth on a street, popping quarters into parking meters, only to be deeply disturbed when he saw his ex-lover walking in a scarlet dress with her fiance. The penultimate moment was when he dropped a red bead from his pocket onto the street. Readers in the forum claimed there was this deep significance – lots to do with the Catholic church (seriously?) and a wandering soul. I was just like, “Yeah, that’s an interesting read on it.” In reality, I had just thought it was a cool image – this crazy guy obsessed with saving people, however little the action was, then finally casting aside the woman he never could save.

Okay, that’s actually kind of a cool concept. I still don’t know how they got the Catholic church involved.

Other than the joke-fiction I wrote, most of what I tried to pass as fiction was really just personal narrative. This gave a lot of the pieces really emotionally-charged details and anecdotal side notes. For instance:

You turned on music – The Shins, most likely. We were always listening to The Shins. How many playlists and mixed CDs did I try to make in the months that followed, just trying to create the perfect blend to capture that damn summer? I have sifted through all the evenings to pick out the music that captured us (that romantic notion of “us”). Owen, Broken Social Scene, matt pond, Sufjan (Soof! Come to Wisconsin! I have the tallest man with the narrowest shoulders! This man of suburbia will not steal your heart!), Bob Dylan, Eisley, Psapp (remember I laughed? I said it sounded like a zoo? I’m not laughing anymore. They suck), Josh Ritter, the Weakerthans (those damn underdogs! I loathe you for this!), The National Splits, Tegan and Sara (I’m no longer walking with a ghost, you pompous piece of shit), and for Christ’s sake, who could forget Radiohead? You were obsessed with Pablo Honey that summer. That album sucks as badly as a Radiohead album can suck. Thom Yorke sounds like a high school sophomore on that album. The only halfway decent song on the damn CD is Creep. And maybe Ripcord, but the rest suck – especially the one you loved some much, Thinking About You. That has to be the worst Radiohead song ever. Upgrade your taste to OK Computer and quit it with your elitist bullshit. 

Many of the details were fabricated ones – ones that don’t apply at all to the relationship on which this piece was based, but there was a lot of bitterness I was attempting to work through with this piece. I accomplished this too. I did a full-class workshop on this piece, and it gave me a sense of closure and retribution when it was all said and done. Airing out the dirty details and humiliations was electrifying.  Reading the piece, I can point to the areas where I changed the details in a cheap attempt to fictionalize it (instead of pesto pasta, we made marinada, instead of blue raspberry popsicles there was ice cream bars, etc), and it’s funny, because with a little editing, the piece functions almost perfectly as a personal narrative, which is what I intend to do with it.

Since I’ve matured since that class (it was in 2008. I’d like to think I am no longer as whiny as my 20 year-old self), I didn’t think I would find anything of worth in the folder. I figured all that I wrote then could and should be regarded as dribble. However, it gives me great pride to see what I was capable of creating. I was brutally honest in that piece, and I see now that I am capable of such honesty; I am able to forget about that somebody looking over my shoulder while I write.

I remember feeling caught off-balance when I first had an advisor ask me if I was a writer. I didn’t know how to answer at the time, because I didn’t know the qualifications. I posed that quandary to the readers of my blog at the time, and they responded with answers that basically amounted to “Yes, you moron. You are a writer.” In this moment, I don’t feel I need the outside affirmation. I can say with the utmost certainty: Yes, I am a writer.

Growing up as an American Girl

This semester, I’m in a class titled African American Women Writers. To be honest, I was not all that excited to take the class. I register for it because it was a twofer. It took care of a diversity studies requirement and it finished off my electives for my English major. I would have much rather taken a class for modern short fiction, or some sort of creative writing, but once you’ve taken ten semesters of higher education, you realize that time is no longer of the essence and that  you want to get the hell out of college. At that point, you take whatever classes will let you do that.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoy the class. It helps that my professor – Norlisha Crawford – is an extremely engaging woman. I’ve had a few similarly themed classes – you know, minority or comparative studies – but they were fairly unremarkable. I took a Toni Morrison class that was incredible in a very Toni Morrison sort of way. Just when you think you know what’s going on with Morrison’s characters, she throws in a dead ghost baby or gossip from unnamed characters. The African Women’s literature (note the lack of American) class I took last semester was so incredibly dull. The class failed to peak any interest in colonialism. I thought the books on my syllabi were supposed to vie for my attention. They’re supposed to be strong examples of good literature that will drive me to learn more about the class’s topic. I’m sure my lack of interest in colonialism makes me a terrible liberal arts student, but whatever. You win some, you lose some.

Anyway, two weeks ago, we read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (read it for free here!) and one of the assignments for the class is a journal presentation. Basically, we can take any topic that we’ve mentioned in class, do some sort of research or elaboration and present it to the class. It’s extremely open-ended. Though I haven’t started the project, I’m planning on comparing Jacobs’s book with the story of Addy Walker. I’ll look at the differences between the reality that’s presented in the novel to the fictional account of Addy’s tale that was read by young girls.

I grew up with the American Girl Dolls. I first got a Bitty Baby – which I named Tia. I got the hispanic one, and I specifically remember deciding I wanted that one because it was different. I knew other girls would get the white baby with the blonde hair and blue eyes. Geez. Even as a seven-year old I was determined to be different. For Tia’s first birthday, my mother gave me silver Gerber spoons. When I was deemed both old enough and responsible enough, I got a real American Girl doll – Samantha. Over the course of a few years, my mother made clothes for Samantha, my dad and my grandfather made doll-sized furniture. My bedroom had more doll furniture than it did actual furniture. And it was awesome.

The awesome land of make believe and dolls aside, I also read the series ferociously. I had the entire collection – Addy, Samantha, Kristen, Molly, Felicity, and Josefina. These books were awesome. I went home this afternoon to get the Addy books for my presentation and I was able to look at my collection of books from my childhood. They were virtually all historical fiction. American Girls, Dear America, and Little House on the Prairie. I was such a cool kid. The American Girls of today are hardly recognizable. It looks like they replaced the historical education portion of the books with modern problems. I don’t have a problem with that, really. The company seems to have the same sort of mission – to encourage girls to be smart and socially aware. I think it’s just my sentimentality that makes it an issue. Where will nerdy girls get their historical fiction if not from American Girls? Where will they find possibly not very historically accurate representations of life throughout the history of America? If there is another company that does this, I’d like to know, because when I have a daughter I want her to be a socially aware, historically informed, brilliantly imaginative child.

Friday Morning Tea

About eight years ago, I decided to be a devote coffee drinker. It started when I decided I wanted to be cool and go to the coffee shop where all the cool kids were hanging out at. By cool kids, I mean the dirty outcasts that had trained their faces to not grimace when sipping espresso or black coffee. I had been drinking coffee with my parents since elementary school, though I always put lots of flavored creamer in it. The kids at the coffee shop were all from the town over, which was nice because when I interacted with them they didn’t know of my reputation. I’m not really sure, but I’m guessing I had a pretty vanilla reputation. I spent a lot of time playing violin – going to lessons, preparing for auditions, and going to orchestra festivals a few times through the years. On the weekends, I went to $5 shows and pretended that I really did enjoy listening to the Blood Brothers when all I wanted to do was just dance to the brilliant jubilee of The Rocket Summer – who I did see perform twice. I think I scrapbooked the confetti he shot out of a cannon. Anyway, at that coffee shop, I was able to be a more amplified version of who I thought I was – girly, smart, and artsy. Very unique, considering that was the image most seventeen year old girls were trying to to cultivate, what with their “photography” they posted on their MySpace pages, complete with captions containing lyrics from Bright Eyes songs.

High school was a confusing time.

At the coffee shop, I settled on a favorite drink – a white chocolate raspberry latte. I had a boyfriend from the town over who would go there on his lunch break to buy one for me. This boyfriend was dubbed “Latte Boy” by one of the baristas. The evolution of Folgers with a 1/4 cup of Coffee mate to double-flavored lattes wasn’t that big of a stretch, but I thought it was.

Curiously, around the time I started working as a barista was when my coffee habit started scaling back. I think the novelty wore off. I used to be a guest to the coffee shop, but then I became a fixture. Now, if there’s coffee around me, I’ll probably have a cup. If I’m feeling especially groggy or stressed, I might have a second.

And now I’m at the point that I’m too lazy to make a pot myself. I’m headed into work at noon. I’ll have some then. For now, I’ll just drink tea. I know nothing about tea. I don’t understand passionate tea-drinkers. The culture surrounding coffee makes sense to me – it has heavy ties with creativity. In my experience, the right cup of coffee can fuel an incredible session of creation. But tea? It has these supposed herbal powers that can do magical things for your body. Having done virtually no research of this, I’ll say this is all the the placebo effect. If you think that cup of tea is going to regulate your digestive system, it will. If you think that cup of tea is going to calm your nerves, it will. I’m probably too cynical to drink tea, which is especially funny when I’m forced to admit that I bought a box of St John’s tea the first day I was without Bill. 

I had woken up without any real rest, and decided to go grocery shopping. In shorts and his old t-shirt, I stood in front of the tea display and tried to find the perfect beverage. I wanted to believe in something, and tea seemed as good as anything else. “Encourages positive mood” the box proclaimed. That seemed like a good thing to encourage, especially since I hadn’t even been encouraged enough to wash my face before going out in public.

The directions say you’re supposed to steep the tea for 10-15 minutes. You’re also supposed to drink 4-6 cups during the day. I’m supposed to find 40-90 minutes a day to steep tea? I fully understand the concept of multitasking, but that’s an obnoxious amount of time to devote to tea.  That’s time I could spend doing other things, like feeling sorry for myself. Wait, I mean…accomplishing things like reading and writing and submitting work, and beginning my senior seminar project.

I’m too busy and depressed to find the time to drink this tea. I’ll stick with coffee instead, that at least gives me fuel to stress about all the things I should be doing.

After a night of champagne

Last night, Bill and I had a date. Our dates basically consist of us sitting in front of our computers and talking like we usually do, except we call it a date. We’ve gotten dressed up and made dinner “together”. We’ve played games online (that time I learned that I have been playing checkers incorrectly for the last twenty years). Usually what differentiates the date nights from the daily videochats is that we have drinks.  We chose to drink champagne last night. Of course since we didn’t share a bottle, we ended up each drinking our own. Healthy choices!

I woke up groggy and forced myself to go into the office. Two or three readers were supposed to be there to start reading, but none of them decided to show up. Great work ethic! Anyway, I spent an hour opening a pile of mail, and realized a few things. First, poetry gets way more submissions than fiction does. Second, cover letters all look the same, and they’re pretty boring to read. In the last two years I’ve worked as a fiction editor, the only memorable cover letter was one that included a short bio. Under her credentials, she included writing post-it notes which she frequently lost, taming two puppies, and owning unimportant five-year old copies of the New York Times. I can’t remember if we ended up publishing her work or not, but I wanted to just publish the cover letter out of pure glee. It was more impressive than writers who print cover letters on Harvard stationary but seem to have no connection with the university other than having stolen a few sheets of paper. The final thing is that I just like seeing my name followed by the term “fiction editor”. Makes me feel important, though in the large scheme of things, I’m really not.

Anyway, from what I understand, Bill didn’t wake up till after three. By that time, I had taken a nap.

I decided to tell him about an essay I started writing last week, which is something I probably wouldn’t have done had I not had three flutes of champagne, especially since the essay was about him. What I hoped to illustrate with the essay was how drastically intimate our relationship had become – how after a year of being together, we no longer lived under the impression that either of us was a heavenly being without flaws. Time had sharpened the soft focus of a new relationship – our bodies sometimes produce surprising blemishes, and instead of passing them over in that blissful haze, we acknowledge them. It was an essay of early domesticated love. He said it sounded like a genius concept, and I couldn’t help but agree since it was my own idea.

The problem was that it focused on his blemish, not my own. I realized it was a way of distancing myself from the work. I don’t think that I made him look like a fool – and that obviously wasn’t the point. But as far as the essay went, we were the only two characters, and I certainly didn’t present myself as the joker of the two. What frustrates me is that I have an episode that would illustrate my point just as well, if not better, in which I am the one with the blemish that Bill tolerates. We had a discussion about my responsibility as a writer – I didn’t want to victimize or betray those to who I am closest. I realized I’m will to be self-deprecating in my head, but rarely on record. If I’m not willing to make myself look the fool, I certainly have no business doing it to the people I love.

I realized this after coming across David Sedaris’s essay “Old Faithful“. The betrayal business was something I was pondering since I heard “Repeat After Me” on the Carnegie Hall recording. [“Repeat After Me” is a stunning essay that will never leave my head, and if you haven’t heard it, you must. You can also read it on the transcript of the episode. I don’t care how you do it, just experience it.] This frustrated me for two reasons. First, Sedaris had already written an essay conveying the exact same topic I had hoped to illustrate. Second, Sedaris had been the one to reiterate the fact that I owe it to myself, my readers, and to Bill to put the focus on myself before I put it on anyone else. Not only is that just a more kind concept, but it’s more honest and will just make an all-around better essay.

Bill suggested I write to David Sedaris. Of course, I protested. He gave me several reasons why I should, and now I’m actually considering the idea. There’s really nothing to lose. I’m sure the most I’ll get back is a generic response letter, but it certainly can’t hurt anything. Maybe I’ll get some fantastic response with advice I’ll never forget. Or maybe he’ll write an essay about me and share the profits with me so I can buy a car that isn’t on its last leg. The possibilities are endless!

In other news, I organized my desk  and now have my three books to read sitting next to my computer in hopes they will beckon me with responsibility and anti-stupid when I’m wasting time on facebook.