Reading Octavia Butler


Like many good things, I came to Octavia Butler’s writing late in life. Two weeks ago as a matter of fact. Two glorious weeks ago. Of course, I had heard about her work, heard her mentioned by feminist writers and scifi aficionados. Taking so long to seek out her books can only be attributed to my shocking talent for making lists then losing them for months or years. Thank goodness I finally rediscovered the list that included her name among must reads!

I chose to begin with Mind of My Mind because the premise is so much like (on the surface) a story I’ve had on the back burner since 2009. In this unassuming little novella lives the tale of an immortal who’s spent centuries developing a “breeding program” from which he hopes to gain a powerful telepathic descendant. I read the book jacket and thought, okay, okay. Let’s see how she did this.

What she did left me speechless for days. I read it cover to cover in 2 1/2 days—finishing only took me that long because the pages were yellowed and the font tended to get tinier and blurrier the longer I read. I will be requesting that the library get a newer copy for the sake of their readers’ eyes. Poor original print choices aside, wow. Wow.

Most admirably, the ins and outs of Butler’s premise doesn’t need a definitive explanation. Her presentation of character, of spoken and internal dialogue is so effortless that no question of plausibility can arise. I didn’t crave a detailed origin story for Doro, in fact, giving the whys and wherefores of his abilities would have ruined the story. What the author did was create a situation, a group of characters that made me want to know what was going to happen next. Even that question of what could possibly happen next was subtle but still powerful enough to drive me on. 

Just today I learned that Mind of My Mind is a sequel. I did not need the prequel in order to understand this story. Isn’t that beautiful?

Her language is so straight forward that blurbs and reviews go on and on about simplicity. We’re so accustomed to scifi being packed with technological, ideological, sciencing science that straight forward readable language has been deemed simple. Scifi expectations aside, I’ve read enough of everything and written enough of my own stuff to know that this kind of effortlessness on the page is rare because it’s just damn near impossible to produce. The work she must have put into developing her style!

It’s easy to forget, or to not even think about, the effort an author puts into bringing their work to the world. Years of it. Practice and frustration and self-tutoring and try try again. Octavia Butler worked. And oh my giddy aunt did it pay off!

Book two for me was Kindred. (Finished in four hours.)  And again, wow. Besides the straight forwardness of language and effortless style of writing that leaves no need for questions of how or why any of this could possibly happen, the author manages to give insight into one of humankind’s own monsters.

In this story Butler depicts perfectly the mysterious dichotomies of love and hate, crippling fear and assumed power, cunning and obvious insanity that allows one group of humans to hold another captive. The slave owning, killing, torturing, loving ancestor of Kindred’s protagonist epitomizes the men who took for the sake of taking and made up all sorts of self-righteous bullshit reasons to keep on doing it.

Notice I use the word allows above. I choose that because it still happens. Men like Rufus existed long before the slave trade came to America and they exist today. The crimes they commit just change window dressings from time to time. This story is powerful on so many levels it may take me years to pinpoint each. It may take me that long just to be able to adequately describe the fierceness of the protagonist, Dana.

Besides that gorgeous straight forward language that manages to build perfectly formed, utterly plausible characters and unquestionable situations, Butler brings us fierce women capable of dealing with shit the world throws at them. In an interview back in 2000, Butler said the black feminist characters in her stories “behave as if they have no limitations”. I love that. I love that she puts together fictional situations where the real dangers of our world exist but the women in the stories react as they should, not as they could.

Fast Forward: Octavia Butler Interview, 2000

There There, by Tommy Orange


So many reviews call this book shattering, I would call it just the opposite. This story picks up the broken shards of lost stories and puts together a contemporary explanation of what happens when the past is forgotten just enough to haunt. With multiple characters speaking across the city of Oakland, Tommy Orange weaves together old beautiful language and street slang by equal measure with an innate talent honed by years of practice with great teachers.  He aptly constructs images of people most of us wouldn’t have guessed could survive at all with such pain and unnamed rage, out there somewhere, existing unsure of where they came from or why.

These are people struggling through the question of authenticity, struggling through the question of why they suffer that question and all the side-effects of suffering—addiction, violence, inexplicable fears, the shadows of memory out of nowhere. These are people that Mr. Orange presents to us not as characters but neighbors, co-workers, those people we’ve passed on the street and wondered why they just can’t straighten out their own damn lives for God’s sake. They are burdens straining the edges of society, mucking up the ground regular people walk on without a clue. Without a clue because the regular people don’t know the origin stories either. History either tossed the pages into a fire or convinced us all none of it mattered anyway, convinced us that we’re the regular people.

In one section of the story a group of Native Americans active in the community get together to discuss the astonishing suicide rates of young Native Americans. Groups like this have worked for years to stop the growing trend, to enact support programs and community outreach. But one man stands up to give a devastating, soul-piercing speech—he equates society, this group included, to someone who’s set a house on fire then told the young people it’s not okay to jump, to save themselves from the fire. As poignant as the analogy is, no solution is offered up. Maybe because the solution is obvious but no one knows how to stop setting the house on fire. Maybe that’s what humans do … build pretty houses just to destroy them in the end. Maybe we don’t realize there’s no real reason to be so fucking destructive.

Maybe if we took a minute to think here and there throughout the present as it crawls toward the future, we’d come up with intelligent actionable thought that leads to the right conclusion—stripping any one culture of its origin stories strips humanity of its of humanity. This sort of crime perpetuates crime, and ensures the kind of tragedies that take place at the end of There There to keep on keeping on. Not knowing where they come from convinces people their future doesn’t matter. Who can survive thinking their future doesn’t matter?

There’s a lot more to Mr. Orange’s novel than this. He shares the pain, the defense mechanisms, the unfocused rage and self-doubt of twelve people living in a specific time and place. The pain and the defense mechanisms and the rage, the city that rebuilds its identity in spite of its bland urbanity erasing identity, works together to tell a very complex story that left me heartbroken and irrevocably in love, ashamed and optimistic, lost and eager to find myself.

I can’t say if the author intended for his story of this very specific set of peoples’ struggles to be universal, but I certainly hope he appreciates that it can be. And I doubt, even as a student and writer, that he cares much about a middle-aged student and writer’s own struggle with identity, with culture and lack thereof. Maybe it’s all just too personal of a tale for me to internalize his truths and lies and fears and beautiful language. Maybe I make just another Caucasian-influenced faux pas in my decision to love this story and use it as a lesson for the future.

My grandfather was told to check white in the race box a long time ago, and though he never explicitly stated an explanation or his mother’s reaction to doing just that, I can surmise from his behavior as an old man that living without the old stories and without his mother’s people haunted him. Hurt him. Despite the negative results in his own life, he wouldn’t share what he knew of his ancestors with me, not really. He danced the perimeter of his garden and sang the memories of Cherokee songs, told stories in the language I couldn’t decipher.  He passed on memories I can’t quite remember, and gave me a hunger for something I may never be able to search out.

There are days and nights that I know a crime was committed, a robbery of stories that I should know and be able to repeat, to glean lessons from. Maybe. But who committed the crime? Those Army officers at a World War II recruitment office back in the 1940s who willingly cowed a shy young man, or the shy young man that somewhere deep down knew better? Or his mother, a Cherokee woman whose name isn’t on any of the roles, who left no documented evidence that she ever existed at all? My grandfather did leave me with hints of his own story inadvertently, by leaving me with advice on the night of his death. He told me that looking toward the future was important. And he told me to never walk into a room unless I could walk in like I belonged there. He told me to never allow anyone to treat me as less than.

All that tells me a lot about his life, and leaves me heartbroken. Irrevocably in love.

Thank you for writing There There, Mr. Orange.

 

 

One Of Those Days


Today is one of those days full of enough sun to fool you into thinking winter has given up its labor. So desperate for mornings free of gray cold rains spent warming the car and trying to untangle another cardigan from dog hair, you squint into those golden stripes of warmless sun and decide not to mind the wind threatening to chase it off.

You decide to ignore the fact that the patches of green burrowing out of dormant lawns are weeds, not real grass. You decide to sidestep shadows clinging to corners in spite of all that bright light at their edges. You’d freeze to death in those narrow swaths of darkness, promise.

Hopes surge strong as another day of almost is promised on the heels of the first. Color is suddenly craved with a strength equal to that of your winter coffee cravings. Once your cardigan, the only one akin to a pastel left over from a clearance sale two years ago, is free of stray blond canine locks, optimism gets the better of you. It’s decided: sandals are the only suitable choice of footwear.

This means, of course, you have to tend to frightful seen-nothing-but-fuzzy-socks-for-months-feet. This task will spend a high percentage of your faux spring energy boost. More coffee won’t hurt anything. Sip a mug full of sweetened caffeine while soaking those poor feet, you’ll be fine.

Lavender toes, almost-lavender cardigan, strappy black sandals, a pasty lick of ankle and neck showing, you go out the door looking forward already to a lunch break drive under yellow skies. Delicious, frothy yellow-gold skies. Not a drop of warm in all that froth.

Quiet Mornings


A slow waking backyard, a city street abandoned before dawn of all its revelers, laborers, and commuters — the emptiness is motivational, inspiring, refreshing as baptismal waters. I covet the hope of such stillness returning to me daily.

True creativity was a mystery to me until the opportunity arose to sit in utter silence. A Saturday moments after sunrise, surrounded by lush new greenery I’d come to tame but something deep in my writer’s soul stirred. So, I abandoned yard tools for a pen and paper and lay down in the overgrown grass until the quiet gave me words.

That day when early errands pressured me into the car while sleep still lay warm on my back. Returning home, a traffic light caught me without companion or neighboring errand runner, or passersby. I had the wherewithal to capture the moment, the gloomy clouds gliding over without a sound. A breeze never stirred. I turned off the car and found a scrap of paper to write: Remember this.

Remember this in the drum beat of rush hour traffic. In the midst of clutching pain while the ambulance screams. In the shadows of a bad dream where too many voices clamor and the walls can’t stop creaking. Remember the sensation of quiet sinking into the skin, slowing the heartbeat, stopping the questions.

Remember the quiet mornings. More will come.

 

#APAD 2018 Is Underway!


This year the plan is to write a poem a day and share the first drafts here. Check out the #APAD 2018 tab, beneath the little arrow you’ll find a new poem each day along with a mention of what inspired the attempt.

Today’s poem is here. Feedback is welcome, also feel free to link me to your daily writings in comments, or to a favorite poem you’re reading each day in celebration of National Poetry Month!

Up To Date Updates


Monday, January 22nd I made a trip to the ER that resulted in being admitted and kept in the hospital until the following Thursday. Being the impatient idiot that I’m famous for, I then rushed back to work on the 30th and ended up with a complication that left me on the couch until this past Saturday. I’m better now, but taking one more day at home before tiptoeing back to work tomorrow and hoping for the best. (I’ve only got one more vacation day left. Cross your fingers for me.)

Since being clear of the pain meds for a few days, I’ve been able to concentrate long enough to write an essay about what Dr. King’s movement means to me. You’ll find it here, along with a link to the unabridged version of the beautiful Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This is the first piece in a series I hope to write in honor of Black History Month, which will include an impressive list of women authors and activists I didn’t learn about during Black History Month in public school.

My work toward submitting individual pieces of Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables, and No Voice of Her Own to lit mags has been delayed for obvious reasons, but I intend to pick that back up today. There are still some mid-February deadlines I can make.

Anyway, those are the updates. I’m alive and writing. Hope you’re the same. Go read my essay.

Embarrassing Drivel


Every experienced, published writer looks back at the early years, sighs, and tries to look earnestly at the latest wide-eyed interviewer before divulging what crap poetry they used to write. Crap, crap, drivel, embarrassing really. It’s a miracle they kept writing, that they eventually found success.

I am suspicious. This is suspect. Think about the sheer numbers. Every writer now comfy with a book deal and online presence blathers on and on about the dreadful, shockingly bad poems of their early years. Seriously? I would very much like to meet a writer, successful now, who’ll look me straight in the eye and declare that decades ago after finishing a draft they sat back in their chair and shouted out loud: I! AM! A FUCKING POET!

That’s the kind of people I want to hang out with in a writer’s group.

 

Completion of a Chapbook in a Mad Messy Dash: It’s Cold Outside, but I Have Coffee, a Lap Blanket, Fuzzy Socks, and Internet


By 5 a.m. it was confirmed that outdoor activities, such as driving to work, were out of the question for me. I sulked for about five minutes, then poured coffee and got on with completing the latest editing of Ramshackle Houses & Southern Parables to send back into the world.

Since embracing the fact that I want to be a writer (a poet, an essayist, a novelist …) I’ve devoured everything at hand written by writers about writing. And still, deliberately organized process fascinates me. Eludes me. Stumps me. While editing my pet project (again) this morning, and indulging in way too much coffee, I got distracted by the realization that I’m a mess. I approach writing the same way I approach everything else—swinging on the latest mood swing.

Elizabeth Gilbert and Natalie Goldberg, to name two of my favorites, aren’t really as strict as some others concerning the methods followed in completing a project. However, they both describe a certain dedication, a recognition of the necessity for daily work. Butt in the seat, regularly. That’s how they both say insight, inspiration, and good work finds them—when their butts are in the seat, and pens are in their hands. Many other writers go into great detail about putting together the project with the help of outlines, plotting out the format long before sitting down to tackle actually filling in the pages.

Their dedication to work structure and method are astounding. I can’t get a handle on it. I’m jealous. Similarly, I have several relatives and friends who insist on cleaning their kitchens immediately after dinner, and making their beds every single morning before leaving for work. They do it automatically years after embracing it’s the thing to do, the thing that makes the rest of their day go smoothly. I remain puzzled by the faithful frequency of these accomplishments. I’ve tried, promise. I’ve even written out schedules and set reminders on my phone. Pfft.

Truth is, I crave structure. I recognize that it would greatly improve my life. But.

Ramshackle  was my very first finished project. I decided I wanted to be a writer in 2009, the original version of this poetry collection was submitted to a contest in 2015. Total honesty? The only reason that collection got completed and submitted was because I got laid off from work and new I’d be unemployed for several months, so I had a talk with myself and said get over yourself, set a schedule, get it done in thirty days. And I did. The collection was shortlisted for a book award two months later.

It was a desperate situation. I got the work done, then rested on my laurels for two years before trying to send it out again. Another desperate situation arose. This time, a panic attack after realizing I’m an idiot. Back in 2015, with at least eight hours a day free to work on nothing but the poetry, was the first and last glint of structure I’ve experienced. I showered, walked the dog, ate breakfast, and put my butt in the seat every day by 8 a.m. Three weeks in, I looked like a demented hoarder half buried in printer paper and cigarette ashes. The structure kind of got set fire to by the last days of that month, and I was nutcase.

That version was fifty pages. The second, forty-eight, with a new title. The third is down to thirty pages. Between the 2017 and 2018 versions, I’ve spent seven months just THINKING about the changes. Refusing to allow myself to pen anything to paper. When not thinking it out, I would read pieces aloud to see which flowed into the next, and would mentally cut what didn’t work. I set myself a deadline for January 15th, and HEY! one of the mags I had in mind sent out notice their deadline was extended until the 16th. (I’m thinking that snow day turned out to be just for me.)

Anyway. Once I sat down with my coffee this morning, first thing apparent was two bad decisions during my thinking time. Over the weekend I’d typed out the table of contents and sipping my first cup of coffee I could clearly see three pieces were all wrong. I made the changes, polished up the title page, and OMG I almost forgot to edit the table of contents! Imagine if I hadn’t noticed that before submitting. How embarrassing!

Five cups in, I had the chapbook completed, read through two more times, then raced over to Submittable. An hour later, I had three individual pieces in another document to send to another lit mag. All in all, I did about six hours work between Saturday and today. Maybe a record for me, if you don’t count the seven months of thinking.

Is that the worst process you’ve ever heard of or what?

Will I ever get better? More productive? Drink less coffee? I don’t know. Despite this being my quickest and possibly finest finished project (the single project that is my total life’s work thus far), it was stressful. Messy.

I have another chapbook in the works, fifteen poems that need to be twenty-five poems. Cento, actually. And I know I’m in trouble because I keep getting distracted from finishing it. The idea for this particular project has been stewing around my life for three years now. THREE YEARS.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Down The Bones: Listening to Natalie Goldberg Read Her First Book Has Been An Inspiration


Just shut up and write.

Goldberg’s simplification of what a writer must do is brilliant, and, embarrassing enough, quite necessary.  Writers! How ridiculous we can be, whining on and on about how difficult it is to find the time, to track down the muses, to hammer out a structure, to blah blah blah. Shut up already!

My favorite way to experience a book, as of late, is to hear the author read it. In this particular version found on Audible, Goldberg’s New York flavored accent is gorgeously calm—a result, no doubt, of decades of zen practice. The voice itself is enough, but couple it with the insight she shares and you’ve got near perfection. I wonder if she realized the possibilities at the outset of the reading project fourteen years after writing the book?

Throughout Writing Down the Bones Goldberg shares the sharp wisdom of her long-time zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi, along with her experiences as both a writing workshop leader and a writer. Regardless of just how terrific her own youthful wisdom seems, in response to an interview question at the end of the book she goes on to share what trouble there was with putting together all this information into book format.

There was everything in piles of notebooks, clear memories, a shining zen attitude, and she still couldn’t get it together without wrestling herself to the ground. It was reading another zen teacher’s book in which she finally found the desired, effective structure. Isn’t that something?

I listened to the bulk of the book with ear buds at work, slogging through data entry. The first stroke of inspiration came in the very first “session” in which Goldberg talks about her favorite way to write—she fills one notebook a month, using a favored ink pen. For the first time in a year, I went right out and bought myself nice pens and a notebook. That was December 30th, and I’ve written SOMETHING every single day since.

As it has happened before, my choices are all over the place. One day it’s a diary-like entry, another it’s a scene from one story I’ve struggled with, another is research on idiotic political current events, another it’s an off the cuff poem, and so on. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be listening to the book again, this time taking notes. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could actually blog about each bit of inspiration and share the results?

 

 

 

 

Nonfiction: An Introduction, by Ann Patchett


I discovered audio books way back in the 90s, then, books on tape, and almost instantly fell in love. STORIES WHILE DRIVING IS AWESOME! Years later, when I had the opportunity to listen to a book read by its author for the first time, I thought, pffft! Now this is love!

That first opportunity came with Eat Pray Love, read by Elizabeth Gilbert, sent to me from a dear friend in 2012. The author’s voice lent something to the story no one else could have, regardless of their talent. It was the depth of emotion and humor and embarrassment that can only emerge from authenticity. I’d already read the book, and truly liked it, but this audio! Wow. By the end of it, I was 100% a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert.

The next book of hers that I was interested in reading came along several years later, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. In the second chapter, Gilbert goes into detail about her first meeting with Ann Patchett and tells a remarkable story of what transpired between them. These two brilliant authors believe that from their greeting, with a kiss, inspiration for a book was exchanged. Neither of them spoke of the book at the time, which made the end result all the more remarkable. But for me, this passage was even better because I’d rediscovered Ann Patchett!

About a year before picking up Big Magic, I’d participated in an online writing workshop hosted by Southeast Review, in which an audio of Patchett introducing her book, Truth and Beauty, was shared. Oh, my. Her voice! The warmth and depth of emotion describing her friendship with Lucy, describing her life as a young MFA student, and later, exploring her grief over losing Lucy … to say I was moved is a dreadful understatement.

I put off searching for the book to finish the workshop, but I did share that audio with a couple of friends. And I listened to it at least twice more. Time passed and, blah, blah, blah, writing and reading and seeking out more craft pieces got shoved to the wayside. Thankfully, Big Magic brought Ann back to me. I bought Truth and Beauty, read it twice, then, in an unrelated turn of events, became an Audible customer.

My most recent purchase was The Story of A Happy Marriage, a collection of essays by Ann Patchett. I didn’t buy it because Patchett is the author, but because she is also the reader!

The first in this collection is, Nonfiction: An Introduction. Without going on any longer about her voice, I’ll say that in this piece, we discover how one writer made writing work for her. Intending to be a novelist since leaving her MFA program, she discovered that working day jobs exhausted her too much to focus on writing an actual novel.

It was laboring over tiny word-count articles that became her bread and butter. After a while Patchett realized that besides paying her rent and buying groceries, writing for demanding editors, being the go-to-girl for various magazines, honed her writing skills. She refers to those years as her apprenticeship. Writing nonfiction, as luck would have it, also left her with plenty of time and energy to focus on getting down to the business of writing those novels.

These writers, Ann Patchett and Elizabeth Gilbert, inspire me every time I read them, every time I listen to them. Gilbert always seems to inspire study, while Patchett makes me write! After reading Truth and Beauty, I began to write daily love letters to my dearest ones. After reading The Get Away Car (also shared in the audio essay collection), I began to submit poems for the first time in two years. Since finishing her essay collection, I have edited two of my old essays and started to apply for freelance work.

Can I get anymore of this stuff, please?