Saturday, December 20, 2008

Terry Tempest Williams, Fear, Listening, and My Book

"Courage is moving beyond our fears to a place of engagement. If we dare to write the book that threatens to kill us, something holds us together beyond our personal terror. Fear is replaced by a purpose beyond ourselves. I trust the truth of my questions that allow me to write in the direction of all I do not know. It's the unlearned moment. It's trusting the unknown territory of the heart that has a wisdom all its own, shedding our conditioning in favor of the mysterious. I trust my instincts.

Listening honors the mysteries among us. We can respond openly, rather than simply imposing ourselves on the situation at hand. It certainly makes life more interesting if we embrace the questions rather than simply harboring answers. Listening, by its very nature, creates a space of transformation."

--Terry Tempest Williams, from an interview in Image (#58)

I am at the point in editing my manuscript where I MUST listen, or I'll get it wrong. It's instinct now, all instinct. In the above interview, Williams goes on to discuss how she organized her newest book, Finding Beauty in a Broken World, that she tore down conventional chapters and section breaks in order to create a mosaic effect, in order to mimic how we perceive and participate in the world--as broken fragments--and to highlight or impose the play of metaphor. Williams is keen on the power of story and metaphor to create spiritual, cultural, and social change, and this is something I am strongly drawn to. It's something we are losing in mass media, of course, but also at home, at the dinner table, in the garden, alone on the reading chair. But it's there. I might consider (de)organizing my book like this--if I have the right instincts.

I feel that in working on my book I confront chaos at every turn, and a sense of fear that comes from that. It is hard to hold so much in my head, to have faith in what I'm saying and how I'm saying it. I think about all the books that never get read and all the words that never get said, and somewhere inbetween is a great anguish and joy--the line between them is very thin.

To find coherence in 95,000 words is terrifying, just as I imagine classifying all the fauna in the world is, or preserving the vanishing language of a native people, or mapping the galaxy. Chaos is everywhere and consuming and frightening--it's beautiful, too, just as order can be. Language is both chaos and order, and therein is a powerful metaphor.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Seasonal Cartoons

Bienvenu, mes amies. FYI--it's 22, raining, and thundering. What's up?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

John Updike's "The Twelve Terrors of Christmas"

4. O Tannenbaum

Suppose it topples over under its weight of bomb-shaped baubles? Suppose it harbors wood-borers which will migrate to the furniture? There is something ghastly about a tree--its look of many-limbed paralysis, its shaggy and conscienceless aplomb--encountered in the open, let alone in the living room. At night, you can hear it rustling and slurping water out of the bucket.

7. The Carols

They boom and chime from the vaulted ceilings of supermarkets and discount malls--and yet the spirits keep sinking. Have our hearts grown so terribly heavy since childhood? What has happened to us? Why don't they ever play our favorites? What WERE our favorites? Tum-de-tum-tum, angels on high, something something, sky.

12. The Dark

Oh, how early it comes now! How creepy and green in the gills everyone looks, scrabbling along in drab winter wraps by the phosphorous light of department store windows full of Styrofoam snow, mockups of a factitious 1890, and beige mannequins posed with false jauntiness in plaid bathrobes. Is this Hell, or just an upturn in consumer confidence?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How To Trim A Tree In 57 Seconds

Or, how to use an LED stick-light-thingy dealy you got at World Market.

Grad students have, on average, only 57 seconds to spare in any given day, so this worked out perfectly. Two quasi trees make one real tree, right? And do you ever watch those videos of fireplaces on cable access during the holidays, where all of a sudden an arm comes in, tosses a log on the fire, then it's another 20 minutes of flame? Let us pay homage through my short tribute video:

Fa la la la la, la la la la....

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My God, My God, My God

It's 51 right now. It was a bit warmer earlier.

It's supposed to be 1 tomorrow night. Yes. ONE. With windchills of -20 or more. I sure hope the plants are mulched good enough, especially with no snow forecasted.

The weather parallels the work of grading finals: essays, stories, poems. I am frozen, stuck at the kitchen table with papers everywhere.

And since I feel publically sorry for myself lately, why not go for the gold. I applied for just one teaching job, a local gig, since I'm staying in town the next few years. Didn't get it. Got that letter today. Also got rejections from Fugue and Orion (Orion says it's a sweet essay, but not right for them--sweet).

I'm not depressed. I don't need to be cheered up. I spent two hours working on an essay after the mail came, and it's hard to get the flow right in its 15 pages. I'm angry. Maybe I'm bitter. Even if I work hard, it's futile: the writing, the teaching. It feels like the same thing over and over, spinning wheels. I see why people cut corners in life, why older professors get so jaded, why writers become dictionary salesmen. Of course, you can't please everyone, but who wants to please? I want to affect, cause change, create deep reflection and resonance. It's not happening. Perhaps my standards are too high. Or I'm naive. After 9 years I want tenure. A sabbatical.

Here's a confession: I wasn't as good a teacher this term as I usually am, in large part due to the pull I felt from the dissertation. One day I was writing, the next I was lesson planning / grading / conferencing. Writing. Teaching. Writing. Teaching. Is this what I want? I can't give 20% to this, 20% to that, and do anything as good as I'd like. There's no balance in this profession, and by the time you make it to the promised land--summer--it takes those two or three months just to get back to par because you're so drained (I can't imagine working full time all year, so maybe I ought to just shut up).

So now I'll go eat dinner. Have some chocolate. Grade some more. Watch some TV. Sleep. Wake up. Try again. Fail better.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

EPA's Most Wanted

I'd host the TV show!

Here's the fugitive list:

"The launch of the most-wanted list comes as EPA's criminal enforcement has ebbed. In fiscal 2008, the EPA opened 319 criminal enforcement cases, down from 425 in fiscal 2004. And criminal prosecutors charged only 176 defendants with environmental crimes, the fewest in five years.

But Walter D. James III, an environmental attorney based in Grapevine, Texas, says the EPA is critically understaffed to investigate environmental crimes. While the budget for the division has increased by $11 million since 2000, there are still only 185 criminal investigators. Congress authorized the EPA to hire 200 investigators in 1990."

Here's the article:

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Other People's Rejection Letters

An interesting project from the author of Other People's Love Letters.

"Other People's Rejection Letters will feature reproductions of all kinds of rejection letters. Whether typed form letters or handwritten in a fit of rage, whether sent by text message, email, or scrawled in crayon, any kind of rejection is fair game: You didn't get the job or the loan or the membership; you're not the right fit for our dentistry school; you're my son but I never want to see you again; your restaurant failed its health inspection; your parole has been denied; we had a good time together but you cheated on me so this is goodbye."

And in good cheer I give you what woke me up in the middle of the night and made me scramble for a pencil. Seriously. Ready?

R emember to schedule that duck transplant for your back
E veryone hates you
J ust kidding
E veryone hates you but your cat
C ould be worse
T achinid flies could lay eggs in you like in monarchs
I ncomplete satisfaction over and over but you fake happiness so no one worries
O (see I)
N aughty thoughts get you through the day (it worked in high school)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cigar Supply is Running Very Low

I also considered "You Almost Sunk My Battleship." Anyway, here's a list of (non) writing related news over the last few months:

--Finalist, Spring Garden Press Robert Watson Poetry Chapbook Award.
--Runner Up (1 of 3), The Journal Flash Prose Writing Contest (creative nonfiction).
--Semi finalist, Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award
--Top 50 / 1,000 for Tupelo Press summer open reading period for poetry manuscripts.
--Note from Ronald Wallace at the University of Wisconsin Press with their fine poety book prize series: "Sorry--it's a very strong manuscript."
--Orion seems to like my nonfiction, at least enough to produce a hand-scribbled note.
--Ditto for Missouri Review on the nonfiction.
--America Magazine thinks I'm competent, but my poetry might be too prosey (I should maybe stop working in two genres at once)
--The Chattahoochee Review, Hudson Review, and Mid American Review all seem to like my prose, given their hand written notes of a few lines, but I didn't win anyone over.

There are several levels to rejection, as writers know, but if you don't and care to know:

Level 1: Your work didn't click with whoever happened to be reading this today / by golly you are just awful. Typed form rejection slip on small paper.

Level 2: We respect your work / you have some talent so keep working at it. Typed form rejection slip on small paper with someone's initials or the words "Thanks" or "Best."

Level 3: You're fairly skilled at this, but.... Rejection slip on small sheet or letterhead, with a few words typed or written "Thanks, please try us again" or "We liked x or x."

Level 4: We just don't have enough room and you didn't knock our socks off, but you've got skills. Hand-written notes on personal stationary, specific sentence or two on what worked or didn't in a poem or piece of prose, suggestions for further reading on topics similar to your own submission's.

Level 5: The clouds part and a ray of sunlight shines forth upon you as the sound of trumpets and chariots echo across the prairie, and I say unto you ye shall enter the promised land after 7 years of tribulation, milk and honey shall flow from the bosom of the earth, for we have accepted your writing and the multitudes cry out in ecstatic song, go forth and multiply, this is good, so it is written, so it shall be paid in a contributor's copy perhaps with your name listed on the back cover.

Then the next day you get a level 1 rejection note from some other place and the cycle begins anew.

I'm twistedly happy (I guess) that I've been floundering around in level 4 a lot the last year or two, but it's still simply a case of close, but no cigar. Will it always be like this? Is it just part of the infinite dance?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Zealand Maori Haka Dance

In the interest of intercultural exchange and understanding, I will surprise my wife with this dance when she gets home tonight (maybe even the words, too). Scroll ahead to see the fine young men performing with their lively eyes and enchanting tongues. Maybe this is also something to do on the first day of class?