In which I discover that my job has Downsides.

http://candimandi.typepad.com/.a/6a00e5500ff5678833012876763620970c-pi

Extreme caveat: If you are a writer and happen to have a kid or two running around the house, you may want to skip this post. Hell, I lived through it and I kinda want to skip this post.

My son’s second grade teacher returned to work after her maternity leave last week. I’m thrilled about it – which is not to say that I didn’t like the substitute. I did. But oh! I really like this teacher. My daughter had her as well in second grade, and I think she is rainbows and poppy fields and fairy wings. She leaves a trail of glitter wherever she goes. She is wonderful.

So, to welcome her back, I stuck a little care package in Leo’s backpack (a nice pen, yummy candies, note cards, etc.) and stuck in a copy of Iron Hearted Violet to add to her class library for good measure. I figured most of the kids in the class are too young for it, but she has a couple of students who are tearing their way through the Harry Potter books who would be ready for Violet. Plus, she already had Mostly True Story of Jack in her classroom library, so might as well have the two, right? I put both things into the backpack, but one came back again. Leo gave her the care package, but not the book.

So I asked him about it.

“I’m not going to give it to her,” he said. He didn’t look at my face. He shoved his hands into his pocket and looked at the ground.

“Okay,” I said. “You don’t have to. But I’m curious. Why not?”

He started walking in a circle. My daughters who were both reading their books on the couch looked up. Tight mouths. A grimace hiding in the crinkles around their eyes.

“I don’t want her to know my mom is a writer,” he said. The girls sighed as one. I looked back at them, and they instantly buried their faces back in their books. I turned back to Leo.

“Why?” I said.

“Because, ” he said. He still didn’t want to look at me.

“Do you know that she already knows I’m a writer. She has all of my nonfiction books too. And Jack. Why does it matter if she has Violet?”

“Well,” Leo said. “Maybe she forgot. She probably forgot. So I’m not gonna tell her again.”

I looked back at the girls. They held their books rigid, without turning the pages. “Girls,” I said. They did not respond. I pressed on. “Does it bother you when people know what I do for a living?”

The skin on Ella’s forehead wobbled and bunched, her lips crinkling up into a tight rosebud in the center of her face. “Ummm….” she began.

“It’s not that….” DeeDee said.

“I mean….” Ella faltered.

I raised my eyebrows. “It really bothers you that much?”

DeeDee nodded.

“Not regular people,” Ella clarified. “Regular people know what you do and it’s no problem because we can ignore them. And we do. But teachers?”

DeeDee gave a great, guttural sigh and slumped into the couch.

“Teachers think it’s extra cool. And they want to talk about it. And use their overly-excited teacher voices and get all breathy and stuff and they say things like ‘Oh your mother is a writer and oh that must be so wonderful for you and oh excuse me while I raise my expectations for you forever.”

“They think things about us,” DeeDee said. “Wrong things.

“It’s annoying,” Leo said.

“It’s awful,” Ella said.

“It’s the worst,” concluded DeeDee.

“And they don’t know what it’s like,” Ella said. “They only see the book when it’s done, and they think, oh cool a book! And it’s true. The book is cool. But they don’t know the other parts that go with it. The moping and the whining and the long nights.”

“And crying,” DeeDee added. “Sometimes there’s crying.”

“And the You Being Gone.

“We hate it when you’re gone,” Leo said.

“And the clicking computer late at night and it wakes me up because I know you’re up,” DeeDee said.

“And the muttering. And the emails. And the emails with muttering. And don’t even get me started on Twitter,” Ella said.

“I hate Twitter,” Leo said.

“And then we have to like the book. And, like, what if we don’t?” DeeDee said.

“You don’t have to like it, sweetheart,” I said. “That has never been a rule. You don’t even have to read it.”

“And we’re proud of you,” Ella continued, “but most people just think that writers just print a book out of their computers and viola. But we know all the other stuff that goes with it. And it is not all good stuff.”

I must have looked rather aghast, because the kids all looked at one another and started to backtrack.

“But we really love you, mom,” Ella assured me, and hugged me. And the other children hugged me too. They kissed my hands and nuzzled my face and told me I was a Good Mom, Mostly – which is all I’ve ever aspired to be. Every day, I try to maximize the Mostly.

And then I made soup. And tried to quell the Dark Thoughts in my soul.

And here’s the thing. This job is hard. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on the people who love us. We love the characters in our stories; we worry about them, fuss over them and mourn them when they die. We fashion a world for them to live in, and we labor and sweat to heave huge elements together, to slide whole continents into place and hang the stars in their firmaments and conjure storms and mountains and wide oceans and the vastness of space; we build families and dynasties and nations; lust, joy, betrayal, consequences, and mad, mad, true love. We invent histories and intimacies and broken hearts. We walk on the backs of teeming schools of fish and allow ourselves to be devoured by wolves and consult oracles and, when we are stuck, we offer our dinner to a beggar and hope for the best.

And then – then! We are buffeted by things we cannot control – reviews, marketing campaigns, sales executives and librarians. We experience failure. We experience defeat. We are elated, then crushed; we sink and then we soar – sometimes in a single afternoon. And we don’t get to experience the one thing that drives us to the page every day. We do not get to witness the child that pulls our book off the shelf. We do not get to see the world that we hinted at uncurling from their brain. We do not get to bear witness to the imagination of the reader at work. Our book is our proxy. And we pray that it is enough.

My job is hard on my kids. It is hard on my husband. It is hard. It is not the only job in the world for which this is true. Lots of us have hard jobs – and we do them with real commitment and love. We do them because we are called, or we believe in the work, or because of necessity. For whatever the reason, we balance the needs of our family and the needs of our work, and it is not always perfect. We do our best, and we do a mostly good job.

Later that night, I laid down with Leo and asked him if he wanted another chapter of Watership Down.

“Not tonight, mom,” he said. “I want one of your stories. And mine. The kind of story that we tell together.”

“Okay,” I said. “What’s in this story?”

“A boy, and a mom, and a monster that lives in a swamp,” he said.

“Does the monster quote poetry?” I asked.

“All monsters quote poetry,” Leo said. “Ask anyone you like.”

And so we began.

Advertisements

Wherein I Utterly Fail As A Parent

If I was a teacher grading my parental performance, I would have to give myself an F.

No….an F-.

If I was the principal of parent school I would expel me.

I keep on running the events of yesterday through my head and shuddering. It was, by every reckoning, a spectacular failure.

Here’s the thing: I knew, as the mother of daughters, that the specter of body image issues and low self and imagined ugliness would one day show its ugly face in my family. And I thought I was ready. I thought I was armed. This was a battle I had fought in my youth in the rocky and precarious territory of my own crooked heart, so I felt ready to  fight for my children. I was Joan of freaking Arc and I was preparing for war. 

Armor: Check

Shield: Check

Sword: Check

Righteous rage: Check

Religiously ecstatic devotion to my cause: Check

Possibly futile war that I have absolutely no hope of winning and that will probably destroy me if I try: Check and check.

Here is what I know:

We live in a culture that teaches girls to hate their bodies.

We live in a culture that tells girls that only their body matters – not their thoughts, not their talents, not their kindness and their care, not their grace or their poise or their generosity, not their hard work, not the amazing things that they can do. We live in a culture that teaches girls that, if they are not skinny, none of those things matter.

We live in a culture that makes healthy-weighted girls think that they are not good enough.

And what kills me – what really really makes my blood boil and my skin bubble and my hair catch on fire – is the fact that the magazines these kids see and the websites they look like don’t even bother photoshopping their anorexic models anymore – they’re using digital models with real-girl (though photoshopped) faces. It’s digital mannequins and it’s harming my child. And I hate it. I am made of hate. I am built of swords and rifles and tanks and laserbeam eyes. I am a one-woman army. SO LOOK OUT.

So I sat down with her, after she had said a couple things at dinner that troubled me.

And I was already upset (what do you mean you feel bad about the ridiculously healthy dinner that I just made for you?) (what do you mean you think you’re too fat?) (you are so beautiful I can hardly see straight) (I love you I love you I love you I love you Iloveyouiloveyouiloveyouiloveyou). My head was a whirlwind of words. My heart was racing.

“Honey,” I said. I took her hands in mine. And oh! Those hands! Those beautiful hands! And oh! That beautiful child!

And I said some stuff that I really don’t remember, and probably didn’t matter much. Something about healthy weights and how our bodies are our interface with the world, and that we experience all pleasure, all joy, all love, all adventure through and with our bodies and that any second we spend feeling bad about our bodies is a total and complete waste of a second – and one that we will never get back. I told her that we only ever get one body – only one. And it is a gift. I told her that I love her. That she is beautiful. That her body is healthy and lovely and strong. But that her beauty is only a small part of who she is – that the really amazing stuff had absolutely no bearing on what she looks like – that her talents in art and mathematics and music and writing and basketball, as well as her innate curiosity and deep thinking, made her a gift to the world. And that the world was lucky.

And then. Then.

Oh you guys.

I cringe at the thought of it.

Then, after all that blather, I said this: “Here’s the thing, honey, nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t good enough, and nobody gets to tell you that your body is nothing short of perfect, and nobody gets to tell you that you aren’t beautiful and astonishing and a miracle on this earth, and if anybody ever tells you anything different then I will punch that person in the face.”

Ella stared at me.

I sat there for a moment in a sort of stunned silence.

Ohgodohgodohgodohgod!

Did I just say that?

Oh my god I did. I DID! Bloody hell.

Ella swallowed. “Um, mom?”

“Yes,” I said, feeling my sense of flamey, knife-wielding rage vanish like the dew of a summer morning. I tried to adopt what I felt might be interpreted as a breezy tone.

“Don’t you think that’s a little extreme?”

“No,” I said. I was, though calm now, unwilling to backtrack. I mean, I said it, right? I couldn’t unsay it. “I really feel that. And I would. I would punch that person in the face.”

She gave me a skeptical look. “Have ever actually punched a person in the face.”

I sighed. I have a policy of not lying to my children (except in the case of the tooth fairy, santa clause and the easter bunny. Those aren’t lies per se, but rather are ritualistic and long term storytelling. They are pageantry.) so I had to come clean. “Yes,” I said.

“IN THE FACE?”

“Yes.”

“In a fist fight?”

“Yes.”

“Has daddy ever been in a fist fight?”

“I have been in exactly two more fist fights than your father has.”

“How many times?”

“Two. But that was a long time ago.

“How long?”

“Way before you were born. In college. I was….hot tempered back then. And I didn’t always make the best choices. And I wasn’t as smart as you.”

“But, you’d get in a fist fight for me? That’s what you’re saying?”

“Oh, honey,” I said. I didn’t cry. I honestly didn’t. But I wanted to. “In a nanosecond.”

“But what if…..”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“What is it?”

“Um, can we have this conversation later?”

Of course we could. And we will. We’ll have conversations after conversations. I gave her a kiss and told her I loved her and she started getting ready for bed.

But here’s the thing:

I know what she was going to say.

What if the person making me feel bad is me?

And it’s a good question. And a fair one. But in light of the nonsense that I had just spouted, it puts us in a bit of a conundrum. Because I told my child that I would punch the person who made her feel bad. In the face. And that person, right now, presumably, is her. Which means  that I have just threatened to punch my own child in the face.

In the face.

Oh for god’s sake.

I’m the fucking mother of the year, goddamnit. Oh, god, you guys. I’m cringing at the thought of it.

In the meantime, I’m bracing myself for more of this nonsense. And I know it’s coming. I wasted my entire adolescence and much of my young adulthood despising my body. This body! This is the body that carries me across this green earth. It digs in gardens and treks through forests and dances when it feels like it. It produced three beautiful children and it loves my husband and it is imperfect and awkward and mine. And I love it. And it wasn’t until I loved my body that I could start to love my life.

So I pray for my daughters now. And I pray for strength. Because, I’ll tell you what: This fight is gonna be hard, it’s gonna be brutal, and it’s gonna suck. And I know that anything I do will be futile and wasted.

My only hope is this: If my daughters see me fighting for them, maybe – just maybe – they’ll learn to fight for themselves.

 

Back to Normal

The children are back in school. My hands are raised to the heavens. My mouth sings hymns of praise. I have cleared away the debris on my desk (there was beach sand on my desk. And a flip flop. And nine snail shells. And a note from my daughter demanding her own room) and I have gotten back to work.

There was a time, when my kids were small, that my only time to write fiction was between the hours of four and six in the morning. This is a scenario that I cannot recommend. During those years, I would haul my shaking carcass out of bed, stumble to the stove and light it. Sometimes I would forget to put on the kettle, and would, instead stand in the darkened kitchen, staring at the cold blue of the hot flame. Once I burned my hand. Another time I singed my bathrobe. Honestly, I’m astonished that I didn’t – not once – burn down the house.

Or maybe I did. In a different universe. I’ve been obsessing with universes lately.

In any case, I would stumble, tea in hand, sloshing it all over my damn self, and lean into my desk chair and start to write. I wrote a grown-up novel that collapsed under its own weight (I had actually started that one in college), and a young adult novel that was so dark and so upsetting and so violent that no one in their right mind will ever want to read it (all copies – I’m pretty sure – have been destroyed) and a mystery novel that wasn’t horrible, but still wasn’t particularly publishable.

It was an important time for me, but it wasn’t a time of producing good work. Just work.

But then – oh! then! – my kids went to school. No more collapsing at keyboards! No more zombified visage! No more potential disasters with fire! Instead I was rested, rejuvenated and organized. I planned out my writing day the night before, and worked in time to read. I had time, each day, to plunk words on the page, and the words – while not good, per se – weren’t terrible. I had graduated from Sucky to Mediocre. I was on fire!

But here’s the thing about the school year – it’s only nine months. Like a pregnancy. And like a pregnancy, it ends with interrupted schedules and lack of sleep and crying fits (mine, mostly) and bouts of vomiting and sticky surfaces and howls of rage. (Also mine). It is almost impossible for me to work during the summer.

Now sometimes, one has to. Deadlines, after all, exist, and boy did I have one. I needed to get the new version of Iron Hearted Violet to my beloved editrix, and I fear that I tried her patience, alas. My time was interrupted, and the work was slow, and the deadline began to creep, and bend, and topple forward. If I lived in NYC, I think she might have strangled me.

Right now, I miss my kids – I really do. The school day is long, and I’m lonely without them, but I need the time away from them in order to make fiction. Right now, my house is quiet. Right now, my heart is quiet. And right now, my new book is taking shape – even as I write this post, even now – under my hands. It presses on my skin. It whispers in my ear. And now, with the kids blissfully at school, it’s quiet enough for me to hear it at last.

In Which Kelly Barnhill Reveals Herself (yet again) To Be A Total Moron

It’s a well-known fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, the sharpest knife in the drawer, nor the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree nor the quickest cart in the Home Depot Parking Lot Shopping Cart Derby. And et cetera. Indeed, I am so many sandwiches short of a picnic, you may as well call me a snack.

Case in point:

This morning, after a hot, unsettled night, it was cool, fresh and lovely. But the third floor of my house is still ragingly hot, so I, being a Dedicated Housewife, planning ahead for my Day of Cleaning, thought it would be a Good Idea to open all the windows upstairs (which had been closed during the night because of the rain) so as to cool the area down to make cleaning it feel less like the imposed punishment/drudgery of some circle of hell, and more like a musical sequence from a 1950’s domestic comedy. Like Donna Reed, for example. Or Father Knows Best.

The trouble is, our two northern-facing windows – and the most important for catching a cross-breeze and cooling the room – were locked, and they’re positioned above the stairs, and they have locks that are easily accessible by my ludicrously tall husband (who was sleeping soundly) and not accessible by me. The lady with the cleaning products. And the frilly apron and the house dress and the pink polkadotted cleaning gloves.

(That last sentence may be a lie.)

In any case, I, being an industrious lady, being a liberated woman, being a woman of strength and cunning who does not need – nay, who does not want – to wake up her husband simply to use him for his impressive height, and who can open that window all by her own damn self got a chair. And positioned it on the triangular landing. And stepped right up.

Did you notice the phrase triangular landing? Hmm. That’s funny. Neither did I.

I fell.

No, toppled.

No, avalanched. I avalanched down the stairs.

My stairway wall now has a hole in it. I managed to hit the corner of the chair and the post and the railing on the way down. And now I have a colossal bruise on my bum.

“Wow,” my darling husband said as he examined my injury. “It’s exactly in the shape of Winston Churchill.”

“It is?” I asked, straining my neck to get a better look at my injured arse. I couldn’t see it.

“Almost exactly,” he said, and showed me the picture he snapped with his cellphone. And you know what? It really did look like Winston Churchill.

I asked him to erase the bum photograph.

He said he’d think about it.

(I may have made up that part too.)

I’m pretty sure I just squashed the dreams (and possibly the souls) of a bunch of college students.

I just got back from a student/alumni networking event for Liberal Arts majors at my alma mater, St. Catherine University – a small, Catholic, all-lady college in Minnesota. I had agreed – foolishly, yes, I see that now – to sit down and chat with a bunch of current students about my career trajectory, my past experience, how my academic grounding prepared me for where I am today, and…..I don’t know. Some other stuff.

And I told them the truth.

And their faces fell.

And honestly, I’m not (entirely) sorry about framing the things I said the way I said them. No one really prepares college kids for the directionlessness of the post-college years. The uncertainty. The self-doubt. No one tells kids how much utter re-invention their life paths will require of them, how much they will have to rely on their creativity, their vision, their willingness to change paths, change thinking, change everything. And that’s okay – it’s just good to be prepared.

I told them that graduation really sucked for me. That I floated in a state of ennui for a couple of years, without direction, without spark, without a sense of the shape that I wanted my life to be.

I told them that they’ll never feel like a grownup. That they’ll always feel like a learner – and that’s actually good. If we feel like we’re one step behind where we want to be, it means we’re moving. Life requires motion, and action and response. We can coast when we’re dead.

I told them that they needed to be flexible and creative and innovative with their career choices, that they had to be willing to research and analyze, that they need to be able to apply their skills to one day do jobs that may not even exist now. And even more – that they’ll have to do that again and again and again. I told them that the world is dynamic and changeable and there was very little that they could count on, so they’d have to build a life with their own two hands.

I told them that my career – hell, my entire life -was built on a precarious structure of duct tape, string, popsicle sticks and gum. And fairy dust. And prayer. And a couple hocked loogies. And that was okay, because it is the life that I built, which means that I can claim it – even the wobbly bits and the annoying bits and the guess-what-kids-we’re-only-eating-ramen-noodles-this-week bits.

I told them to be prepared to work jobs that they hate, to take orders from people they despise, and to do it with a smile. I told them that they well may be fired one day for reasons totally outside of their control, that good jobs can go suddenly bad, and that things that seem like scraping the bottom of the barrel can turn into the opportunities that define their careers. I told them to take chances. And that self-employment is a terrifying, exhilarating, nail-biting and beautiful, beautiful thing.

I told them that being a writer required masochism, a thickness of skin bordering on delusional, a willingness to be simultaneously separated from the world and integrated into it. A willingness to go to a place of not me. When I’m writing, there is no me. There is only the book. Indeed, when someone reads my book, there is no me there either. The only thing that exists is this: characters, place, story, and the reader’s relationship with the three. Being a writer is both prestidigitation and vanishing – you see the thing I make, but I disappear.

But mostly, I told them to lose everything that they should be doing. Should is a word that has driven many a twenty-something (including myself, once upon a time) straight into the waiting arms of their therapists. Not to knock therapists, or anything, but it seems that we could all save ourselves a lot of trouble if we forget about shoulds and forget about the standards by which our eighteen year old selves judge our twenty-eight-year- old selves (or thirty-eight, or forty-eight) and simply focus on the paths that we’re on, and pouring our hearts and souls into each blessed (and sucky) day.

Once upon a time, I was a starry-eyed co-ed too. The life that I had assumed that I would have was radically different from the life that I had. And honestly, thank god. Because I was kind of an idiot in college. Much of the turns my life has taken, have been entirely accidental. I didn’t mean to fall in love, for example. And then parenthood kind of presented itself when I least expected it. These things dramatically altered my course – away from the shoulds of my college self into the doing the best I can of my adult self.

I didn’t mean to become a bartender. Or a homeless youth worker. Or a janitor. Or a park ranger. Or a receptionist. Or an activist. Or a journalist. Or any of the random jobs I’ve held in my life. Sometimes you get to seize opportunities, and sometimes you take what you can get. All the same I’m glad that I did the lot of them, because each step brought me to where I am now. Novelist. Mom. Teacher. It’s not a comfortable life by any means, and it’s fraught with uncertainty, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

It’s a pretty good life, actually. And I’ll keep it.

Feed the Beast

Whenever I have a lull in my writing production (and let me tell you, this happens a lot), I start reading a TON of books on writing, on the creative process, on living the life of an artist, and what have you. And these books, though they may give me the aura of the Artist Hard At Work – it is nothing short of poseurism. Because these books – for me – have been nothing short of useless.

And that’s okay. Sometimes we need to do useless things to fill the time between bouts of mad utility and unabashed production.

Still, with my head full of slogans like “filling the well” and whatever else they’ve told me to do over the years, I’ve discovered that my creative life bears no semblance to the secret groves or babbling brooks or tender thoughts alight on gossamer wings that I’ve read about in other people’s descriptions of their various creative journeys.

My creative life is not a journey. Nor is it a well. Nor is it a river. Nor is it a garden that I must love and tend and fuss over.

My creative life is animal.

It has teeth, and claws and sinew and bone. It has a wet nose and sensitive ears and breath reeking of old meat.  It is heavy-muscled, long-legged and agile. It is crafty, frightened, randy and fierce. It lopes, and stalks and pounces. It sniffs at the ground, howls at the moon, urinates on trees, scratches after it shits, and follows its prey for miles.

My creative life has mangy fur and yellow eyes and a gamey scent that can knock you out. It nuzzles my face in the morning, grabs me by the nape of my neck and tosses me out of bed. I can see its ribs. I can see its ligaments under its tight skin. It’s hungry. And it doesn’t want to wait.

So I feed the beast.

I don’t write every day – I’m not that kind of writer. I write when the beast is hungry. I write when the beast paces next to my desk. As I write, I sweat, I shiver, I weep. I write from my skin, my muscle, my empty stomach, my restless feet. I write as if I’m running. And maybe I am.

And when I write – when I write a lot – the beast begins to be satisfied. I read too, though not craft books. It hates those. I read fiction and nonfiction and poetry and memoir. I read across genre and time period. My brain is a smorgasbord for my hungry beast. I gather things from the natural world – artifacts from the book I’m working on. Right now, on my desk, there are three oval stones, a bit of bark with pale green lichen clinging to its grooves, five scraps of paper with five Nordic runes written crudely with my left hand. There is a crown made from wintered grass, tied with a ribbon.

I write to feed the beast. I write to make it happy. I write to put it to sleep. I write to feel its head on my lap, its dark breath on my skin, its ragged howl ringing in my own, open mouth. I write, so that one day, it will be sleek, fat and fine. I write to send it – howling, snarling, singing its name – into the wide, wide world.

And then I wait until the next time I’m woken in the night by a pair of yellow eyes, a hungry, hollow panting somewhere in the darkness of my house. And a new book begins.

On Networking (and why I kinda suck a it)

There’s a reason why I wouldn’t be able to survive in Corporate America. First of all, I look terrible in blazers. Second of all, I don’t wear heels. And third of all, I can’t network. Like at all.

(Oh Working Girl! How you’ve imprinted yourself upon my imagination forever!)

Even the word “network” makes me go all heeby-jeeby and flop-sweaty and I can’t do it. Not only that, I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to get out of networking. Gigs? New best friends? Award nominations? I have no idea.

Instead, I chat, eat food and get the heck out of there before someone sees that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Still, despite the fact that I’m communication-deficient, I decided to go to the Minnesota Magazine Publisher’s Association’s yearly freelancer and editor Mingle. Essentially, it’s like those parties that we went to in college when people wore stickers indicating if they were interested in men or women (or both), or if they were in a committed relationship and just wanted to hang out and have fun. I always thought that the parties that color-coded its attendees were more fun than the usual fare, because it eliminated confusion or crossed wires and everyone could relax and enjoy themselves. This was a similar concept, except, we were coded according to Writer or Editor or Publisher or Photographer, or whatever.

Now, unfortunately, that meant that, from time to time, some folks saw the W on my name badge and took it as an opportunity to give me the good ole fashioned brush-off, but on the whole, I had a nice time. I got to show off my Luddite-special super old cellphone to people (it sorta looks like this one: except that mine is bigger), and talk about new projects, and mostly it gave me an opportunity to get a better understanding of the landscape of magazine publishing in my state. And let me tell you: there’s a lot. I was stunned. I have some experience with the magazine world around here from my work with the (sadly defunct) Twin Cities Statement magazine, but the nature of that work consisted of the editor calling me up and asking for stories on various topics. I never had to pitch stories. I’m not entirely sure I know how to do it.

In any case, I’m glad I went. It was nice to chat with grown-ups, it was nice to learn, and it was nice to pretend that I was doing something for my career (largely untrue, of course, but since I lie for a living, why not lie to myself).

Here’s me from the behind, my signature orange purse slung across my back, sans blazer, sans heels, my undyed, unprocessed, untamable hair wound into a clip, chatting to the lovely Kelli Billstein.

Maybe I can learn the ways of Corporate America – all I need is my boss’s rolodex, a can of aquanet and a pack of Virginia Slims. (Because I’m sure nothing at all has changed from the days of Working Girl, right?)

Processing My Way through the Launch Pad Experience; or, How My Brain Was Destroyed, Rearranged and Rebuilt by the Shockwave of an Exploding Supernova

Ok, fine, that subtitle is slightly misleading. Still, given the transformative power of an exploding supernova – both destructive and constructive, leaving that part of the universe indelibly altered – I’m starting to feel a lot of kinship with nebulas.

First: let me tell you about Launch Pad. It’s a free, NASA-funded astronomy workshop for writers and editors. Essentially, they gather a bunch of nerdy, science-loving wordy-types and gives them a crash course in astronomy. We sat in lectures from ten in the morning until six, then seven, then eight at night, and then often went out after dark to play with telescopes. The whole thing is the brainchild of one Mike Brotherton: astronomer, hard sci-fi writer, and all around good guy. And for most of us, having the chance to spend the day learning, then playing with high-tech toys – well, it was a geeked-out paradise that I was, quite frankly, loathe to leave.

Now, I have a lot to say on the subject, but I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of day-to-day learning, since some of my fine compatriots have done it for me. (See Rachel Swirsky’s detailed and day-by-day accounts here, here, and….aw, hell, there’s a bunch of them. Just click on the Launch Pad tab and you’ll find the rest) Indeed, this is just the first of likely a few posts, since I’m still processing the whole experience and it’ll take me a while to really allow the thing to crystallize in my head.

Anyway, since I am, in my soul, a relational person, I always understand an experience in the context of the people with whom I shared the experience. In other words, anything I have to say on the subject of my time in Wyoming will be utterly meaningless unless I can say a few words about the people who sat in that room with me as our worlds were collectively rocked by SCIENCE!

First, here’s a picture of us:

Aren’t we adorable?

So, here are the folks I hung out with last week:

Walter Jon Williams – Author of like, nine million books, video game designer and writer, and a black belt, so he’s a person to whom you’d lose in a bar fight. Also, asker of incisive questions and cracker of the occasional wry joke which kept me giggling on my end of the table.

David J. Williams – The guy whose book I already bought and who also has a kick-ass accent. Also: every time he asked a question or made a comment, I realized that everything I thought I knew I didn’t know at all and I had to go back to the drawing board.

Carrie Vaughn – Author of some really cool werewolf novels (among other things), philosophizer, contextualizer, and explainer – not to mention a super-nice person and it was a pleasure to get to know her. Also: she’s the first person I’ve ever met who had watched Dorkness Rising! More on that in a minute.

Marjorie Liu – Woman of spirit and grace. Unfortunately, also susceptible to altitude sickness. Still, the creative output during the course of this lady’s early career is nothing short of amazing and I have no doubt that she is likely to one day rule the world with her bookish prowess. Plus, she’s sharp, funny and holds her ground in an argument.

John Joseph Adams Dude. I love this guy. Fer serious. He’s an editor, writer, publicist, and generally made of awesome. Also: funny. I appreciate funny.

Rachel Swirsky One of my favorite writers ON EARTH. Also, someone with whom you never want to get into an argument with because she’s smarter and better informed than 99.999% of the world’s population. From now on, if I’m confused about something, I’ll ask Rachel and she’ll always know. Also, she’s a wonderful person and it was really fun to meet her.

Cecilia Tan – Another person placed under the heading of “People Smarter than Me”. Editor Circlet at Press – the press that Neil Gaiman famously called the “naughty books” of science fiction, and someone who truly gets the power of speculative fiction to transform how we understand and interpret the world around us. She’s like the Jules Vern of sexual politics.

Alice Henderson Ah, the juxtapositioning of the Light and the Dark! Author of some delightfully wicked novels – both original and those part of a larger universe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Choose Your Own Adventure novels, for example. I mean, does a person get cooler than that? No, my friends. No they do not.) and one of the most light-filled souls I’ve ever met. So enjoyed meeting her.

Genevieve Valentine Love this woman. Millions and millions of love. First of all, if you haven’t come across her fiction (Strange Horizons, Clarksworld, Federations and like nine million other places) than you really need to. Like, right now. She’s also smart, snarky, wickedly funny and a lovely, lovely person.

Monte Cook is the most famous man ALIVE!!!! Or, at least he is to me, after we found out – through my incessant prodding, of course – that he had a bit part in Dorkness Rising! I’ll pause for a moment to let that one sink in. (!!!!!!!!!) Monte’s been writing novels and RPG stuff since forever and has won scads of awards and has a really cool book that I must purchase called The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracies. Mostly, though, he’s like the geeky big brother that I never had, and it was my great pleasure getting to know him.

Jeremy Tolbert, our elder statesman of the group as he had been in the workshop before – also he and Mike Brotherton go way back. Cool-headed and thoughtful, a terrific writer and photographer, and an entrepreneur. I like people who have made the self-employment plunge because it makes my own situation seem less insane.

Ian Randal Strock The man with the van, and yet another on our roster of editors in the group. You know, I’ve often thought that editors only exist to throw water on the positively brilliant ideas of writers and to generally crush our fragile little spirits, but I’m starting to understand that’s not true. Ian is a man of ideas: able to stare down treacherous mountain tops and sinister small-town sheriffs with grim determination and verve. Also, he can follow an astronomer’s directions and those guys think that getting something in the range of a power of ten is pretty darn close.

Bud Sparhawk Avuncular and gentle presence on my side of the room, punctuated by the occasional one liner – sharp and bright as the tip of a pin. Also has written more short stories than anyone alive as far as I can tell. I so enjoyed his company and running commentary throughout the week and even today have found myself waiting for a Bud-type comment that never comes as he is far, far away, alas.

Nicholos Wethington (that link goes to the website he writes for rather than his own – which, if it exists, I couldn’t find it. Which is a shame, because the guy is friggin brilliant) Our own Gentleman Scientist in the Edwardian sense – though without the tweed nor the pince-nez. This guy is amazing: got excited about astronomy one day and set off to learn everything possible on the subject. And then did. And now he’s building his own telescope, and will likely have a home-made rocketship in his back yard by spring. Also, a lovely person who was kind enough to share his knowledge with me on more than one occasion when I was clearly floundering.

Okay, fine. I was floundering all the time. This is why it’s good to know smart people.

Anyway, that was the group. And they were magnificent. I’ll be writing more on what we learned and its impact on me as a writer moving forward, but it was an exhausting week and an exhausting re-entry into family life, and now I need to get to bed. More tomorrow.

But while you’re all thinking about outerspacy-goodness, watch this video on the origin of the moon and be amazed.

Want to save Literature? Support small presses.

I’m not kidding around. For all the bellyaching lately about the Endless Deathknells of Literature (and Life!) as we know it (yeah, Garrison, I’m talkin’ to you), not nearly enough attention is being paid to the vigorousness and vitality abounding in the small press world. The small press world is populated by millions of profoundly brave souls who deeply care about books. They stake their futures on books and leverage their livelihood on books and sometimes even mortgage their children’s future on books. And it is this willingness to risk everything that has fueled a renaissance in literature – one that’s happening right now –  that is recharging, re-invigorating and resuscitating the Book.

It’s the small presses, the independent booksellers, the indie zines, and the micropresses who are pushing boundaries in literature. For those of us who are constantly on the lookout for books that inspire us, challenge us, books that push language and concepts and ideas into uncharted territory, we know better than to search out the old standbys on the bestseller list. Instead, we look to the vanguard – where books rethink and recreate the world.

I’m thinking about this right now, because I have a new story up on Shimmer’s website – one that you can read for free (did you say free?) for just signing up for their newsletter. Now, this is something that we should be doing anyway – because we can’t always afford to buy every book we want nor can we subscribe to every journal that we think is awesome. But, what we can do is stand up and be counted. We can say, yes! I value this! I support books and thinking and language and image. I believe that literature is a living thing, a world unto itself, one that expands and greens and fertilizes all who touch it. I believe in the power of stories and the power of great books.

Anyway, if you feel like reading the story, head over to Shimmer, and show your support. And in the meantime, here is my question for you folks: Who are the small booksellers and book makers that are currently revving your booklust currently? For me, PS Publishing, Subterranean Press, Graywolf Press, and Small Beer Press get my vote.

What are your favorites?

More Stories from the Ever-Awesome Clive

I love Clive. Millions and millions of love. Now, I know it’s very wrong of writers to pick favorites among their characters – much like parents pouring love onto particular children and ignoring the rest. And while it’s true that I love all of my characters equally, and I take their lives and their stories very, very seriously, there is something special about Clive Fitzpatrick – Professor of Literature, Expert on Ancient Texts, Practitioner of Magic, and Defender of Good.

Clive gets me.

Without Clive, my book would not have been finished. He has been my muse, my support and my swift kick in the pants.

Anyway, in the many revisions of the book, I had to remove several selections from Clive’s scholarly, philosophical and folkloric works, and each one was like ripping a piece of my soul away. Clive, when he appeared in my dreams, or in my conversations with him on the page was much more even tempered about it. He has an easier time letting go. Well, bully for him. I can’t let go.

I’m thinking more and more about taking my little selections and expanding them into actual stories. I may even try to publish it under Clive’s name. Because I think he deserves it. Not that he’s my favorite or anything. He’s just……special. Extra special. Here’s a bit from one of his stories:

Once, there was a boy who looked like a boy and spoke like a boy and thought like a boy, but was not a boy at all. His parents, unaware of the non-boyness of their beautiful child, strapped shoes on feet that were meant to be bare and tethered him with baby carriers and swaddling and five-point harnesses to keep him from flying away.

You are our little boy,” his parents cooed as they buttoned his jacket, although the buttons turned to bugs, which turned to butterflies, which flew prettily out the open window. They pretended not to notice. They closed the window, and the shades, and the drapes.

You are our little boy,” his parents sang as they strapped him into a pram, which sprouted flowers, grass, and a crystal spring. They told the neighbors it was a garden ornament. They entered it into a neighborhood beautification contest and received an Honorable Mention.

The boy resisted. He fluttered, he heated, he trembled with magic and rage and frustration. But eventually came to love his parents and his home and his life. And eventually, he believed he was a boy, and called himself a boy.

But the boy would grow. And with growing comes knowing. Even a child knows that.

Tales from Nowhere (or Everywhere), by Clive Fitzpatrick


The Loft Children’s and Young Adult Literature Conference

Thanks to everyone who was so kind as to come to my Magic and Fantasy class at the Loft yesterday. I seriously thought I’d only have two students, and was woefully unprepared for the number of folks who came. Actually, I was woefully un-prepared in general. Or, maybe overprepared. A one hour class is a weird time period, in my opinion, and was inadequate to be able to accomplish the things that I wanted to accomplish. Still, I hope I was marginally helpful. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting the writing exercises as well as some of the further reading that didn’t make it into the actual class due to time constraints.

I’m off to my kids’ piano recital right now, where I am sure to glow and beam with maternal pride, happiness and joy. Happy Sunday everyone!