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Never In A Million Years

by mark neely

In his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, David Foster Wallace writes about the impossible task of choosing the “best” of the hundred or so essays he was assigned to read for the project:

I tend, as a reader, to prize and admire clarity, precision, plainness, lucidity, and the sort of magical compression that enriches instead of vitiates.

Anyone who has read even a little David Foster Wallace will immediately recognize the writing he describes as something like the polar opposite of his own work.

Maybe this is a peek into the mind of the self-hating writer. Or maybe it is Wallace lapsing into his default, self-deprecatory mode. 

But I like to think it springs from envy and admiration, from the same thought I often have when I read the work of talented peers: Never in a million years could I write something like that.

A terrible and thrilling feeling. A feeling reading Wallace’s writing often inspires in me. And one I hope to inspire in someone else one day. 

Exchanging One Cotton Candy Machine for Another

by sophiakartsonis

“I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.”
― Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid’s Tale

I’ve always prided myself on loving what I love. I feel unusually fortunate to have my very family, fiancé,friends, vocation, and home.

Gratitude should be an inarguably wonderful thing. Gratitude is. Attachment. Intractability. Not so much.

A lot of changes are happening where I work. I have loved this job from the first class that I taught there. I adored my boss: the man who was dean when I was hired and above him, the president of the college. We had two secretaries for our department and both were treasured.  I had an office, a wall painted the perfect shade of dusk, my name on the door.

I am starting my sixth year at that job and everything that I just listed has changed. Every single thing.

I won’t lie. I have been seriously bummed out about it all.

Being in love with a job is a good thing.  In many ways, it is.  But being in love with every facet of anything is asking for trouble. I know this. It is the lesson that I have to learn and re-learn. That same river twice bit.

*

I am getting married in exactly one month. A few weeks ago, we had a big party at our house to pre-celebrate with our local friends as the wedding is to be out of state. We called it a hootenanny and planned for lots of music and all of the fare of a country fair. I painted a little flower peddler’s cart and planned to set up bags with cones of cotton candy in it.

I even bought a cotton candy machine. Some deluxe contraption that could turn even hard candy into candy floss. It was larger than I hoped and much more complicated.

The party took its own shape. There was no time for cotton candy. People kept wanting more and more of the baked feta appetizer and were mingling but never opted to play live music. It was a different great party than the one that I had planned.

I took the fancy cotton candy machine back the next day. It was unused and I planned to get a refund. Then I saw the simple machine I had wanted but not seen before and exchanged the contraption for a machine that just used sugar and made cotton candy.

*

I have always lived in the same part of town in every city in which I have lived.  College. Artsy. Gaslight. The names change but the neighborhoods bear certain similarities. Funky coffeeshops, bookstores, and the ability to walk to almost any business.

When we went househunting, I clung to the neighborhoods most like those where I had always rented.

My fiancé found a place far beyond the range we had agreed would be a fair traveling distance from where I work.  Twenty-four miles of driving each way.  An area of town that left our ultra-cool realtor cold. “Enjoy the McCain/Palin bumper stickers.” he told us.

The house had a certain charm to it, but it was the land all around that was unforgettable. I didn’t know how I would live so far away from neighborhoods that I saw as attached to more than a little of my self-image, but I agreed we should place an offer on this odd little country home.

It was a radical change in so many ways. It took me months to really adjust to all of the quiet. It was change that I would have resisted if not for the fact that someone that I love and admire had found something that made him happy and that he believed held the promise of many entirely new types of memories for the two of us. It was an adventure and it was predicated on how many major revisions we had made—two long-time single people—to accommodate all that sharing a life and a home requires.

That was two years ago.

Tonight we paddled out in our canoe across the reservoir that borders where we live, to the zoo where a blues concert played. It was nearing sundown and the water was calm enough to radiate whole stripes of amber, steel blue, silver and yes, cotton candy pink, so that it felt as if our little craft were inside of some kind of liquid rainbow. The whole effect of it was enchanting and I could not believe my luck in getting to be out in such a night, a flock of geese flying nearly with us, the moon casting on the water, fireworks off in the distant sky and the music at our backs. Every second of it changing as we paddled, every change bringing another kind of sweetness.

Off the Grid

by mark neely

According to a study done at Ball State U., where I teach, the average American is looking at some sort of screen—iPhone, computer monitor, television, etc.—for an average of 8 ½ hours per day, and often using two or more screens at a time (e.g. tweeting epithets at Chris Bosh while watching the NBA finals).

Much of that time, of course, is spent right here on the Internet. I’m no Luddite (I’m writing this on a blog for Pete’s sake), and I exalt the wonderful anarchy and global sweep of the Web, but I also wish I spent less time there. Some days I feel my brain getting duller with each passing hour.

There’s some science behind this feeling. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr pools together a boatload of research on Web use, and concludes that the Net promotes “cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” It also gives us “the kind of sensory and cognitive stimuli—repetitive, intensive, interactive, addictive—that have been shown to result in strong and rapid alterations in brain circuits and functions.”

Hurried thinking, cursory reading, and superficial learning being antithetical to the kind of reading and writing I aspire to, I decided to go offline for the month of July. I didn’t quite keep my promise—once I had to download some important forms and once I took care of some pressing business at work, but all told I spent only two hours online in July—no email, no social media, no websites of any kind.

Unfortunately, I didn’t become a genius overnight, but it was a different life. I wrote and read more last month than in any 30 day period I can remember. I felt the heft of an actual dictionary. I opened a few cookbooks, which had sat idle and dusty on my shelves for many years. I rode bikes and played basketball with my kids. I flushed a family of turkeys from their roost on a morning run. I even napped a couple times. The days seemed to stretch out endlessly. I didn’t worry about who liked what on Facebook, or my Amazon ranking (always dismal), or Paula Deen.

I also missed out. A few writing opportunities came and went (the world of the Web moves fast). The lives (and vacation photos) of friends and relatives went on without me. As did social media—all its flaws, yes, but also its interesting banter and wit and controversy. I got woefully behind on various work tasks that came over the transom while I was away. I missed the news of a great friend’s next book!

I need to be connected most of the time to do my job—but my experiment proved to me that I’d be happier, more productive, and probably smarter if I spent less time online. Now I just have to figure out how to make that happen. The Net is a hard beast to master. Almost everyone I know has pledged to curb their internet usage at one time or another. Even fervent defenders seem to sense we’re all hitting this pipe a bit too often.

I know the Web is simply a new technology for disseminating information, just as the codex was a new technology a thousand years ago, but I’ve never heard anyone say they wished they read fewer books. I wonder why.

Half-Cento Half-Broken-Song

by sophiakartsonis

  1. Driving home from work last spring, I see the day’s windfall includes my beloved patio umbrella, fallen off the roof and crumpled, the skeleton of it broken in three crucial places.
  2. I am crying hard when I walk into the house. Driving up to our home that umbrella’s taut perfection of rich wood bones and the color like the eggs of certain songbirds, muted like beach glass, but opaque like the shells, it was a sight so pleasing, so comforting as to be more than itself, as if the whole house lay on the ground: arched where it shouldn’t be and hollow where it should arc.
  3. I am not saying my grief was wholly rational.
  4. “So broke, I can’t even spend the night.”
  5. Whenever I think of blues, I think of that line, of Buddy Guy, of my old friend who found it for me and of how he broke, then broke with me and how twenty-some years later, a postcard arrives in the mail and it’s him: blues-broken and separated from his wife, job, home.  I am grateful but skeptical. Two months later, three hand-drawn postcards, two photographs he took, one through rain legging down a windshield, and a mixed cd,  he vanishes from my life again.
  6. I am a little wistful, but not broken-up. He was a good friend. He went away. I was very sad, but I thought I would never hear from him again.  Once you lay a thing to rest, it’s hard to mourn too hard when it dies a second time.
  7. You can’t step into the same grief twice, I’m told.
  8. Or is it “After the first death, there is no other.”
  9. I began a villanelle called “Broken Patio Umbrella”
  10. The repeating line is “what is broken can be mended but not unbroken”
  11. I was on the phone with my favorite living poet when I drove up and saw the umbrella.
  12. Before I had a home and a man who loved me despite all my brokenness, that poet was home to me.
  13. He wrote a villanelle about Evil Kneivel.
  14. His repeating line:  Beauty is in the way it is broken.
  15.  I find the bones each spring of animals that didn’t survive the season.
  16. I have two jars of bones in the sunroom. One leathery, dehydrated corpse of a frog that died in the mailbox during a simmering summer. His mouth frozen wide in what looks like it’s trying to be a scream.
  17. Bones bleached white are proof we lived, that something stays until it doesn’t.
  18.  Over dinner on our deck, a neighbor chastises me for feeding the animals out here. “You break their normal cycle. You interfere with their patterns, behavior.:
  19. I break a graham cracker into fours and take it out past the mailbox after she leaves. I imagine the perfect hands holding it like a dainty, fragile thing.
  20. Another friend posts a photograph of all the bones her dog had buried in the yard.
  21.  I don’t bury the birds I find dead on the road outside my house. I used to, but now I leave them for the things that live off remains.
  22. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
  23.  The Humpty-Dumpty year.  My whole life tumbled off its nic nak shelf. It was nearly a decade ago, but I can still recall how sure I was that I had felt my last bearable day.
  24. My fiancé put the umbrella back together, The splintered bones of it propped and sealed with the right glue, patience and a hand that mends so that the break isn’t so much forgotten and inconsequential.
  25.  There were many king’s soldiers and many king’s men and women watching over me that black summer.  Three o’clock agony was the worst. Friends called each day to make sure I had survived it.  I meant never to get over it.
  26. “I have learned to love these crippled hands” is a line my friend Nathan wrote back in the nineties, a couple of years before his death.  Sinead O’Connor sang “I do not want what I haven’t got.” It would take me years to see the truth of that.
  27.  A raccoon’s hands are ballerinas gliding on the music of garbage and decay. Isn’t it funny how remains mean both that which is gone and that which persists?
  28. What is broken can be fixed but not unbroken. I have stopped looking for that moment when I might have gone back or he might have come to me.
  29. We are the most finite thing going. Nothing needs to last that long for our use. Each year I see how umbrella-fragile we are.
  30. If beauty is in the way it is broken, it is also in the repair done with such care that it’s almost worth it to know someone would work that hard just to try to set each fracture into wholeness, and sees to it that  each fracture is fortified until the seam reminds not of the crack but of the mend.

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(Photo by Karin Carlson-Muncy)

Bridging the Beige

by sophiakartsonis

This morning I was lucky enough to have an exchange with the lovely and prolific Julianna Baggott.  She is in the midst of moving and I mentioned that I had recalled pictures on facebook of a fabulous room that she had changed from the formal dining room of its architect’s intention and into something livable in a Baggott/Scott definition of the term. The word that comes to my mind is: vibrancy. They are a family in motion,  from the blog and facebook posts that I see: books written, being written, acting, art being made, laughter, and in some scenes there is a wall of the most saturated indescribable blue in a room  meant to be formal.  Intense. I loved it and said I recalled that post, those photographs and that I hoped the move found her somewhere equally lovely.  Here is her response:

JB: We’re renting a house in downtown amherst, MA — the landlady very kindly sent me my paint choices for interior walls: beige, off-beige, taupe, off-taupe, gray beige and a beige gray.

I’m buying loud curtains and rugs. what can I do?

  • When I lived in Cincinnati, I had a tiny apartment with wood floors and a great balcony that I dearly-loved. I also loved my three cats and worried that they would not be welcome on the neighbor’s half of the balcony. So I had a trellisy partition thing installed. I promptly painted it chartreuse and then put down electric blue astro-turf and a magenta velvet old chair. It was Thanksgiving Day. I was avoiding a blind date with an allegedly sexy Bulgarian physicist and this was my eye-feast for the afternoon. By the next morning, I received a call from the manager of the building. Apparently, the owners (in their eighties) drove by their property and insisted the trellis be repainted. They gave me the option of beige, another beige: taupe or dark brown. I explained to the manager that I would obviously comply and because she is a wild, wonderful, kindred spirit, I added that I have spent my life dealing with The Beiges and would run right over to the hardware store for something with tan or quiet-death in its name (biscuit or bisque) and spray right over my carefully brush-painted masterpiece. I drove back to visit this weekend and if you pass the trellis on the side, you still get a shot of unapologetic chartreuse. That will be you  this summer: the eye-trick of the vibrant that does not go beige even in a beige habitat. (Plus rugs, pillows and the like.)

  • JB:  Love it. will take note!

    (I thought we were going to end with the sexy Bulgarian…)

    No. I went for a WASP at the end of the day. (Beige on the outside, but all kinds of chartreuse inside.)
     ———————
    It was fun and light chat and I could end there, but the thinking back to those days and the end of the story which is not with a sexy Bulgarian but a sexy German-English extraction who is some days the flip-side of the me-coin and others, the opposition found in the word opposite, made me think more on the subject of a colorful, meaningful life. The brilliant way of living that is so easy for us to find (and sometimes so hard to remember) with one another. The hard days ahead are shared days. Just this past weekend when I walked across a bridge in Cincinnati referred to as The Purple People Bridge.  Memorable, because one darkest summer while in graduate school, that bridge had too silly a name for my Hart Crane fantasies and though I had no true intentions, I did have the right frame of mind. I also remember driving  to the Cincinnati side and walking back and forth across for a kind of solace, a peripatetic meditation. Some days found me joyful at the light on the water, the boats, the general wellness that being near water brings. Other days were made little more than bearable by that bridge. No days had me imagining that same purple bridge with its novelty-song-sounding name would find me so happy, having lived into a happiness I could not have then even begun to imagine where I finally had a published book (soon there will be two!) and not just a long wished-for reliable love but one with with a man who not only drives a hundred miles to help me see a baby gorilla that will feature strongly in my new project, but a man who gave me the book that started the project and has helped shape every part of it along the way.  (Including the part that had us just last month, driving nine hours each way to Madison, Wisconsin to visit primate labs there.)  There is neon in this here beige. There is a bridge and it is full of color even when it’s not. I have learned to mine for the vivid as I’ve learned to actually love those softer neutrals. Exhibit A: to my right, a wall called Mourning Dove. Exhibit B: the guest room wall will be a Copper Clementine. A tangerine going nearly metallic. Exhibit C: This technicolor weekday.

Take what you’ve got and make do

by kathrinewright

Five minutes to read a poem, write a list, look for a form, imagine a character – where she was born, how he wakes, his/her favorite ice cream topping, the memory that pops up when it rains, to open that window, let the air in, just five minutes.

Ten minute to find the groove, flex the muscle, capture the lines that sketch the character to life, to find her a disaster to attach to, to figure out the secret that keeps them doing or keeps them from doing the thing that makes the story.

Five minutes to trace a work back in the OED, to fall in love with the word’s home, to picture it formed in the mouth of that century, to watch it form on the page with other words, to love how it moves.

Ten minutes to research your way through a poem, to figure out the form of a sestina, to take on an ode, to start your way in.

Five minutes to mark up a page, to read it, know the words that don’t belong, to rearrange, reconsider, reapply, remember. The spark that got you going. The one that may no longer matter, now that you’re on this side. But maybe.

Ten minutes. Times two, minus seven, plus eleven, divided by 4. However many that is, it’s something. It’s not zero. Start there

Surrender

by tjbeitelman

For what it’s worth:

Sometimes — let’s face it: almost always — the Universe is way smarter than the likes of me. (Almost? What kind of fool am I?!)

Sometimes that feels interminable and oppressive. Like, seriously: when will I stop being such a f#$-ing moron? But sometimes it’s the most life-affirming, say-yes-to-the-world thing there could ever be.

Lately (luckily) I can report that I’ve been feeling lots of the latter, less of the former. In particular (if you’re keeping score at home) my transcendent shock and awe has been directed mostly at the following:

  • Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, especially: the introduction, chapter 6, chapters 30-33, chapter 66 and chapter 99. But really all of it. In the order it was put down.
  • Son Volt’s Okemah and the Melody of Riot, especially: “Afterglow 61,” “Jet Pilot,” Medication,” and “World Waits for You.” But really all of it. In the order it was put down.

All of it gives me goosebumps and, if I let it, it’d make me cry those tears you cry when you’re not sure why you’re crying but you feel more alive and honest and in-your-own-skin precisely because you’re crying about this particular thing you don’t know why you’re crying about.

You made this? I want to say. To the makers. But…how?

Don’t worry: you don’t have to like what I like. (Duh.)

But you do have to like what you like.

Really, really like it — no matter what anybody else says — and be dumbfounded/awed by it and thereby let it make you feel (strangely) affirmed in your high opinion of yourself. (There’s so much that can just tear us down, isn’t there?)

Yes. This is your task in this strange world.

Connecting-the-Dots: Random Points of Light in Twenty-Years of Friendship

by sophiakartsonis

“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”
― Vincent van Gogh

(This post was written collaboratively in Powell, Ohio, as Kathrine Wright: bridesmaid-goddess-extraordinaire  was making a bride-salvaging visit.)

That we both loved Van Gogh, and Anne Sexton and Starry Night rendered in shaggy paint and shaggy words. That we loved the wild-hearted, gypsy-brains of each. That stars and words would beckon us both, differently and in cometing cross-paths to each other.

And ever expand. And turn into year, years, decades, that turn into lives lived and altered by place, time, space, lines.

That, now, years and years from that first class my student  offers up a painting and my friend writes a poem in reply.  They’ve never met, but star-story and my knowing of them both, makes another pattern in our collective night sky. That the first graduate student I have ever directed chose to call her project Not Written in Stars. It is poetry constellating words across a wall, watercolor, homemade book and chalkboard sky canvases, a series of skies with faint points of white making again, words.  It is a planetarium: painstakingly punched points of light. Of course, my starry-eyed friend had to fly out to see it. The words and the stars: they multiply.

And the ones that have come, gone, even better, those who stayed, signed on, jiggered themselves a place within these walls and walks and walkabouts and words.

That we are gathering what stardust we can, what words, both plucked from the marrow of our heaven-made bones. That we are heaven-skeptical, save for real skies with real stars in them. Or real gardens with points of light that can be strung together for real toads. But one of us is here to celebrated that the other has kissed enough of those. We’ve been poeming this out from the day that we met. Star-written, star-crossed, crossing stars off our life-in-lights list. We know that what makes a thing make sense is only proximity and context. We grow nearer in order to keep the light arriving no matter how far into the darkness we move away.

And what we’ve found for ourselves, together, away. And the patterns and paths that keep us near, even when far is how the day falls. And the knowledge of the ever-present shock and following sadness kept off the horizon, lurking. And the luck in those days overflowing with more bliss than sighs. And the sureness of having a cheering section just for you, each planet, each satellite in two orbits.

30 Things About the Author

by kathrinewright

  1. The author will experiment with her newest work, hot off the printer. Be forewarned. It may be rough.
  2. The author will not tell you what she means.
  3. The author does or does not claim that any of the events of this novel happened to her.
  4. The author spends more money at the big box bookstore than she should. She also spends too much at the indie bookstore down the street.
  5. The author will quickly be out louded by the smartassed and slightly batshit extrovert yammering about their blog in the Q&A
  6. The author sometimes loves to be anonymous.
  7. The author would appreciate it if you cry softly while she reads that one poem.
  8. The author took a long, long time to figure out the way to story that story. She writes and rewrites it still.
  9. The author does or does not have thirteen types of tea in her cupboard.
  10. The author has lost many journals.
  11. The author abandoned writing in journals several years ago and now only writes in front of a screen.
  12. The author, upon finishing that poem/story/essay/novel, has no idea what it means.
  13. The author may or may not be happy with that much ambiguity.
  14. The author grew up in the gender-bending eighties. She thinks it smart that you never forget that.
  15. The author might love you just little bit. If you.
  16. The author may not give one flying fuck about you.
  17. The author may be a little afraid that no one will be at her reading.
  18. The author is definitely afraid that there will be so many people she will not be able to speak. She prefers it this way.
  19. In the middle of the reading, the author’s brain will spasm, and she will forget something important she wanted to tell you.
  20. You may or may not be the character upon which much vitriol is heaped.
  21. You may or may not recognize yourself as they character she may or may not portray you as.
  22. You may see yourself where you are not.
  23. The author will need to find another character to love/hate tomorrow.
  24. The author will find this terrifying. Less terrifying than any other option.
  25. The author is a trap.
  26. The author plays terrible, sappy stuff on a defunct music player to write a certain kind of poem.
  27. The author knows only a shallow grave of what she’s talking about.
  28. The author knows the minutia of her subject, and is consumed by it, and you would not believe how much she kept out of the chapter, just to keep you here.
  29. The author will love one chapter just a little too much, for reasons only she will or will not understand.
  30. The author will love this moment. And this one. And this one.

Five Rules That Matter (in my opinion)

by ajanefountas

The two most popular rules that writing teachers hand out like candy are “Show, don’t tell” and “Write what you know.” Here’s what I say: Throw those rules out the window, and follow these instead.

1. Don’t think.

“You can’t think a story,” “The poem is smarter than the poet,” etc. You may have heard such wisdom before. Listen to it. The creative process is akin to dream: something magical happens in the act of writing. Unless you’re revising, stop thinking and just write.

2. Don’t self-censor.

Writers sometimes stop themselves while they’re writing: “I can’t write that.” The “that” might be a family story. Or something violent or ugly or repulsive. Don’t stop! You can always cut later, after you’ve had some distance. You decide what makes it into print in the end. But whatever you do, don’t stop something from coming out. If you do, you’ll never know which truth it might have led to.

3. Trust your gut.

To cultivate a writer’s gut, you need to grow confident in the ways you construct fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Consider writing in the dark until your true voice comes through. If you seek feedback too early and listen to what others say, then you may end up writing like someone else, or many “someones,” instead of like yourself. Once you learn to trust your gut, it’ll be easier to revise your work and decide whose feedback to heed.

4. Know the elements.

Study fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Look closely at the elements in action: point of view, character, language, etc. Know the different ways that a story, poem, or essay can function. Read widely. Then, when it’s time to revise your work, you’ll be better able to see where it’s breaking down or falling short. And by having read widely within your genre, you’ll know that just about anything goes as long as you can make it go.

5. Sit down to write regularly.

Some writers can write when they feel like it, when the so-called muse visits, and make progress. But most writers need a regular routine to get anywhere. Writing regularly is like watering a seed. Water helps the seed grow. An absence of water causes it to dry out. Make a contract with yourself: Write 300 words a day, or write for an hour a day, or whatever works for you.

The main thing is to set a goal and reach it, even on days when your muse seems to be hibernating.