Observations on Writing

On hatred of the artist as a young person

November 30, 2017
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I was listening to Neil Gaiman discuss why he waited to write the Graveyard Book until he was a good enough writer to do the story justice. He told about two aborted attempts to get into the characters. The years of thinking it had taken to try a third time, and how he’d been disappointed with that effort, too, until he’d shown it to his daughter and she’d asked for more. It’s curious to hear this story just days after my friend tells me that she hates when people love her early work because she hates her early work. She can’t even look at it without feeling ill.

“They don’t want anything to do with work I’ve done in the last ten years. They want me to be the same artist.”

I don’t think this is true. They aren’t thinking about the artist. They are thinking about the art. They are thinking of the way the pieces spoke to them. They are thinking about how the pieces felt. They are thinking of themselves at the time when they first discovered the art, and the way the art can take them right back to that self like a teleporter.

And for us, the artists, those people are gone. I can look at paragraphs I wrote and not recognize a single word. Was that really me, writing those sprawling sentences? At the time, it had been so urgent to get it all down, and now I can’t even be bothered to remember what it felt like to need to express it in the first place.

I wrote Red Audrey and the Roping as a short story when I was twenty-one. Half my life ago. The girl who felt that aching despair doesn’t exist now. But that book is like music, I can remember the exact road I was on when I felt so love sick that I might have been poisoned. I can remember days up on the hill with the dogs when I was trying to obliterate my narrator. Days when I scarred her body. Days when I played the same song on repeat because it was the only path through this chapter.

It would be a tragedy if we were the same artists now as we had been. And it would be odd to find that we could carry everyone along with us each step. No one can grow at the exact same rate as the artist grows. Even the artist, when discussing the third book with a reader, will find herself thinking instead of the fifth book. We are outpacing ourselves and each other all the time. We are wanting, always, to understand a little better. To make something more perfectly beautiful. To make something we haven’t got quite right yet.

The nomadic girl who made everything a myth as she tried to explain suffering to herself is nowhere to be found now. We aren’t a single volume, or even a shelf of books, but entire cities. I remember a time when I thought recurring chin acne was the worst thing that could happen.

Sometimes art feels like a spear. That it tears through people and just leaves this gaping wound. An injury. And we work not just to find a salve, but to find more art that will injure us as gloriously.

I used to believe that martyrdom was the highest form of love. I did. That is a thing I believed. And then I wrote a small, intimate tragedy about it and realized that I’d had it all wrong. I love that story. I love how wrong I was. I love the books I read to find more rigorous truths about love and tragedy. About myself. About you. About this whole weary place where we keep getting it wrong and have to gather up our tools and start to find a way to get it a little more right.

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An old injury

August 17, 2015
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Get Lit!

April 9, 2014
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In 1998, Eastern Washington University’s Press and the Creative Writing Department sponsored a literary festival that would become Get Lit! At the time, I was a graduate student, and couldn’t afford to pay $10 for the events, so we worked the box office instead. That year Denis Johnson read from Jesus’ Son. It was one of the most extraordinary readings I’ve ever experienced. I was 23, thinking about stories and poetry as radical acts, and here’s this dude reading wild, comical, gruesome pieces of revelation and redemption with a main character named Fuckhead.

The year Kurt Vonnegut headlined at Get Lit! I couldn’t go because I’d been scheduled for surgery. After years of inexplicable illness, the doctors had found masses and were going to remove them. During prep, my doctor told me he had tickets to see Vonnegut that weekend. He said literature is how he thought about the body. We were all stories. I feel like both of them saved me. The doctor and Vonnegut.

When I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore, we covered the Get Lit! events, and I got to meet Jonathan Lethem at a midnight reading that Jess Walter called the subversive headlining event of the year. Lethem’s gorgeous essay about using pop culture to survive the death of his mother is still a piece I can’t think about without feeling kicked in the belly.

This year, I get to talk about Young Adult Literature with a panel of writers at Get Lit! 2014 on Saturday, April 12th. Later that same afternoon, I’ll be reading from Giraffe People. Stories and poetry as radical acts: Get Lit! Join me, Spokane.

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What is your tone?

November 22, 2013
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I didn’t really get tone until college. What is the author’s attitude, they’d ask us on tests. How the fuck should I know? Why can’t we just read it and have our own attitudes?

But I get it now. It’s not much of a conversation if our reading experience is limited to our own response without any consideration of the writer’s perspective. In a similar way, as an adolescent I had a limited understanding of theme. What they — the nefarious posers of literary questions — really meant for us to discover was: What is the story about — what are its themes? But I found this a ridiculous proposition. It took an entire book to tell the story and now you want me to reduce it to battle cries in four sentences? Harry Potter is about the humanist assertion that brutality and fear tactics have a shelf life and ultimately the hope of civilization is the united belief in kindness, bravery and curiosity. There should always be the opportunity for redemption. We are bound, one to another, in unexpected ways. Also, wizards.

My problem, obviously, as an earnest student, was a belief that there could be one correct answer. When in fact what I was being asked was how does the story work? How does it work? In these 700 pages, what did you absorb, what does it mean, and is it what the author intended you to experience? Jack Gilbert calls this the engine. What is the engine? How does the story run?

We like to say that what the writer intended has little to do with it. All that matters is the way the reader experiences the work. I suppose that’s true if the work fails. But tone is pivotal if the work succeeds. If we are moved, how are we moved and why? Did the writer get us where she meant to get us or was it something else entirely? If it works, does it work the way it was meant to work or does it work because we, the readers, stepped in and wrote back story and intentions that aren’t on the page? Did we help it work? Was it all there on the page but we resisted because we found the characters unappealing, the story stunted?

We matter, yes. The story doesn’t exist without the reader. But the story doesn’t exist without the writer either. It’s communal. It’s a conversation in one of those houses filled with Pinter-styled pregnant pauses. There’s a lag in your ability to speak back to the writer, the way there’s a lag in the writer’s ability to bring the story into the world. First, all things exist in our heads. Then they are made real. Paper and type. A story from a rib.

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October 16, 2013
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Leaving Hawaii broke my heart. For years, it was all I could write about. The tropics and heartbreak. I couldn’t separate them in my head, in my relationships. I’d flinch if you touched me. Even my skin felt wrong. In the cold, saltless North.

And place can break your heart. I believe that. Hard luck, few opportunities, poverty, meanness. It feels like somewhere else will give you a proper chance. Somewhere else you can be the person you’re meant to be.

Except. Except. I went back to Hawaii in 2000, just before the elections. It wasn’t the place I’d mourned. And I wasn’t that girl in any case. The thing about heartbreak is that it’s internal. That’s what we mean when we use that metaphor. Something inside us hurts. Not our city. Our center. I hurt. I hurt when I breathe. I hurt when I walk past that restaurant where you laughed. I hurt remembering kissing you in that park. The sunset feels like it’s crushing me. This place is killing me!

But what hurts is inside you.

The sunset doesn’t recognize you. That restaurant. That park. They don’t remember. They don’t have anything to do with your suffering. The dog goes on with its doggy life. Sometimes, you’re the only witness. And that can feel so heavy. So lonely.

Leaving Hawaii was the best worst decision I ever made. It turns out, it didn’t have much to do with my heartbreak after all. I suckled my injuries for longer than I should have. Longer than I needed to. Until they seemed funny.

My silly old heart. Recovering despite my best attempts to hold it down and forcefeed it the past.

Place is just where you lived for a time. Where a part of the story was set. But you’re the story. And you can’t outrun your center. It’s there in peace and in famine. It’s there in heartbreak and joy.

Last week, I hung out with a cat dying of cancer. He had this feeding tube like an odd antenna, and medical tape wrapped around his neck. His belly was shaved and soft as tenderness. He was so happy you’d never know. You’d never know his situation.

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In defense of Meghan

July 24, 2013
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In my interview with Merry Gangemi on Woman-Stirred Radio, one of the most interesting discussions is about the character of Meghan. Merry Gangemi, an astute and fascinating interviewer, held the perspective that Meghan is irritating and doesn’t know her self. I’ve spent the week considering this, and I’d like to take a moment to talk about why Meghan is important. Why her character is valuable despite the fact that for much of the book she behaves like a shithead.

Meghan has chosen a career at odds with her values. She’s working to get into West Point, sponsored by a chaplain’s family that she admires, aware of the military’s (and the sponsoring family’s) stance on homosexuality. She knows these things and attempts to navigate what is expected of her, despite her desire. She’s young, 18, and ambitious, the ideal role model for Cole’s parents to foist on Cole, except that Meghan is a lesbian.

And this is what I like best about Meghan. She really is all these things. A role model. A person with honor. A cadet. An overachiever. But none of that matters if she’s gay. In the time of the novel — 1990-1991 — if she’s gay, she gets kicked out of the military, she gets dumped by her sponsor family, she compromises her potential because she wants a girl rather than a boy.

If you understood that, and realized how arbitrary and nonsensical that is, how would you behave?

I have such affinity for Meghan. For the honorable person of whom dishonorable things are demanded. It’s her choice though, right? Nobody is forcing her to go into the military. Right. But it’s an absurd requirement. You don’t need to be straight to sacrifice for your country. Now we admit as much; Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is dead, and the military is the better for it, as the Pentagon reported earlier this year.

Meghan is weak, which is to say human. I love her because she struggles and gets it wrong and is determined to self correct. I love her because externally she’s the golden girl for whom life should be lemon meringue pie. Except that she loves this girl. And determines to do something about her love: to make herself worthy of it. I love her because she found a way to make vocabulary lists love letters.

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Teen up

June 18, 2013
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One of the many reasons I’m drawn to teen protagonists is that they have the benefit of being unformed while still deserving our sympathy. We expect teenagers to be selfish and egocentric. It is all about them. And if they can work through that shit while they’re teenagers, they’ll be less likely to be libertarians later.

How do you go about voicing a teen? I was asked that this weekend at my reading. Did I research them? Well, yes. I was a teen and I’m around teens. I listen to them. I still remember what it felt like to be surrounded by people and chatter and deadlines and feel entirely alone. I remember the awful pressure of constant expectations. I think you’ll be a writer, they said from the time I was in second grade.

We think when we’re finally done with high school that we’ll be free of a community comprised in some part of assholes and fuckwads. That we can just hang with people who get us, and do important work that we enjoy. But we’re being taught invaluable skills in spite of ourselves. There are assholes everywhere. We will have to be civil even when we’re cranky. At some point we may learn that the money is less important than the quality of our lives. That what we find most beautiful will strike us, over and over, like a flint stone.

We will learn to separate. To form a whole and complete self. To differentiate from our parents and values we don’t share. If teenagers have read my work before, they’ve never told me, but they’re reading it now. I wrote Giraffe People because I wanted to be blessed. I wanted to write about forming a sense of self in the maelstrom. About how we must. We must build ourselves. Without shame. Without guilt. Without fear.

You must nurture and you must begin with yourself. That’s how you build the resources to nurture those around you. To seek out need and bring aid. You learn grace by applying it to yourself. Your dark ignorant selfishness. You are worthy of love. And so are the rest of us.

The teen protagonist compels us to self-evaluate. Have I caught the voice? You tell me. Check out this rad review of Giraffe People from Out in Print.

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The plain plane

May 22, 2013
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Tonight I’m talking with the Queer Theory class at Eastern Washington University. Tomorrow at dawn, Mary and I fly to New Orleans for the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival. It’ll be our first plane trip together to the city where I became certain I’d marry her. The city of Zombie Brides.

My ideas about this book and marriage equality and being queer have a cohesion I hadn’t expected. Coming out is a second adolescence but there’s something else, there’s something so vital about coming out — about the universal experience of recognizing and naming your sexual self. This is true about me, we say. This is the story of where I was when I woke. When I startled up and broke open. Straight people have been telling me that they can relate to the story because they came out, too. Of course they did. We all name our sexual selves.

The difference here, for the queer person, is coming out and being in the statistical minority. Coming out and having to push against assumption and inequity and bigots. Of maybe taking longer to sort out your sexual self than your culture is comfortable with. But you like boys, right? So how are you a lesbian? Technically, you’re bisexual, aren’t you? I love you, but I just don’t get why you’re choosing to live like this. 

How gay are you? How gay is gay enough? You keep using that word and I don’t think it means what you think it means. Enough. You get to name your sexual self. And you get to name it for the rest of your life. It may vary and it may not. It may terrify you. It may be the purest vanilla. It’s yours, love. Nobody gets to feed it to you. Nobody gets to confine it, rename it, inhibit it. Name your sexual self without shame. Let it surprise you. Let its wingspan seem improbable. Let it be whatever beauty it is.

We talk about sex like we all agree. How fortunate that we don’t.

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He's at the opposite pole from where I am

May 17, 2013
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He’s the first hand raised in the audience and wants to know why I think Canada is so much more tolerant of gay people than the United States. Afterward, he’s the first to have his book signed. “I want you to know,” he says, “that my 25-year-old son is gay. And he let me know in a letter. And he said he hoped it wouldn’t freak me out.”

He has a kind face, the man telling me this. Yet I prepare myself for how little difference that makes. We may be kind people and still injure our children with unguarded, thoughtless responses.

“I told him I wasn’t at all freaked out,” he says. “I told him I’d known for a long time and that I loved him and that God loves him. He does — you know. And three days before Prop 8, I officiated the legal wedding between my son and his partner. I’m also a minister, like your father, though he’s at the opposite pole from where I am. Three days before Prop 8! It was a beautiful ceremony.”

I don’t know how to tell you how much I love this man. How much I needed to hear his story. I needed for him to tell me. I can’t explain how my heart fills with love when I’m surrounded by people of grace and compassion who recognize and celebrate all of our humanity.

“Will you write something about grace?” he asks.

Oh! Oh, yes. I will write about grace. I will write about beautiful fathers who speak love to their children. Who speak love to strangers. I will write about our souls. The way they burn with meaning.

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Please praise what you love

April 10, 2013
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I used to dread the question: What’s your book about?

Um. It’s a kind of love story. (Red Audrey.) It’s a tragedy. About martyrdom. And family.(Field Guide.) Yes. Yes, way to pitch, Jill Malone. But now, I look forward to you asking because fuck, I’m excited. I’m so excited. Giraffe People is the book I hoped to write. The story I meant to tell you.

The one about being young and striving, about being human and messy, about the way childhood as military dependents felt like we were veterans, too. About the way love burns in that scathing, lovely way so that you’re aware, maybe for the first time, of your arm bones and your ribs, of the way your breath rushes in and out. You’re aware of the center of you. The relentless light.

Praise what you love. Praise it! We don’t have time to quibble and mumble to our shoes. I want you to read this book. I want to read this book to you. Remember what it felt like to be young. To want in that way before we knew better. To be free from knowing better. Remember how tentative love felt. How fragile. How we thought it was inexperience that made it feel so new, but really that was just love breaking us open the way love will.

Giraffe People will be in stores in three weeks. My wife says, “The novel has an adolescent protagonist, and is an internal coming-out story focusing on what it means to be queer in an evangelical family and also within the military culture during DADT.” And all of that’s true, but it’s also about the zing — the sonic, flaying zing — of being lit up the first time by that person. You know. That one.

giraffe people 6a

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