Boredom is Stupid, Histrionic, and Vain. Knock it off! Here’s How.

from Flickr user mesaba.

Yesterday morning, walking up the hill with Child to school, she said, “Does Santa make TVs?”

“I don’t think so.” I said this because I don’t want her asking for a TV for Xmas.

“Oh man!  I really want a TV for my room.”

“Well, even if Santa could make you one, I would tell him not to bring it.”

“What?” Shrilly.

“Why do you want a TV in your room anyway?”

“In case if I get bored.”

“Well you know, Child, there are all sorts of things to do instead of be bored.  You can color or play with one of your hundreds of toys or go outside or dance or write or read or draw…”

“But what if I do all that and then I am bored.” She interrupted me.

“You won’t be.”

“I just really want a TV in my room, mommy.”


“And a DS.  When will you buy me a DS?”

“Who knows, Child.  Maybe never.”

To her credit, there was no more shrill “What!”ing.  She is pretty good at hearing “no,” all things considered.  But her single-mindedness  is impressive indeed.  She, I think, may possess my obsessed gene.

All this got me thinking about how:

Boredom is Stupid.

I live with two people who often profess to be bored.  It makes me nearly blood lusty every time they do.  I don’t really view it as in my right to scold Fella over his, but Child’s accustomed to my earful whenever she talks about being bored.

I don’t rightly remember when it was that I decided that boredom was not something I wanted to engage in.  But Irecall knowing, when I was fairly young, that there is ALWAYS something to do.  I am never bored.  It takes so much effort to be bored.  You have to ignore everything around you and make up reasons not to derive joy–even minor joy–from activity–even minor activity.

If I am attending a boring talk or conference or meeting, I write or think or read–discreetly, so as not to be rude.  There is always something to think about.  Always.  Even if it’s just wondering what the chair in front of you is made of and how it came to be.

Here, let me show you:  I wonder how much money it costs to produce that one chair, and how much the machines it was made on cost, and whether the chair has been inspected by a number of people, and what catalogue this venue used to order this chair, and if they ordered a hundred with it, or just the one, or a thousand or more.

And you know what’s super cool about the future in which we live?  You can ask the internet.  So what used to be just exercise for my questioning muscle has become an information treasure hunt.

Boredom is Histrionic.

I think that people who profess to be bored are more interested in the stomping and slouching and whining that they believe boredom warrants than they are in examining the real source of their boredom.

That is pathetic.  It is unbecoming.  It is arrogant.  Professing boredom is like saying, “I know too much to be interested in anything.” And I say a great big FUCK THAT.  Nobody does.  In fact, the more one learns, the more one sees that there is to know.  And if you don’t already know this, you’re doing it wrong.

Boredom is a vain habit of mind.

Boredom is a vacuous vortex of laziness.  But more than that, boredom is a choice.  Being bored is like being on birth control.  Or like being a republican.  It involves a complicated set of thoughts, and after all of that, a choice.  After a time, this choice becomes the rote choice, and boredom gets easy.  It is, certainly, easier to tell yourself there’s nothing to do and then do that, and feel sorry for yourself about it, than it is to get up off your rump and set the world on fire.

But I’m not talking about setting the world on fire here, people.  I’m talking about playing with the pebbles in your driveway or drawing a picture or reading a book or even (though I think TV contributes to boredom more than relieving it) watching TV.

There is never legitimately nothing to do.

People who say they do drugs because they are bored are lying.

People who do drugs do them because they want to.  They feel like they have to explain it, so they say they are bored, because boredom is something that people seem to universally profess and experience.  And probably, too, because doing drugs is socially taboo and mired up in all kinds of cultural and personal and moral and legal negativity.  So they give the demon boredom all the credit for their enterprising recreational recklessness.

My point is that there are a million and one things that a person can do instead of being bored that aren’t drugs, and that people should probably stop blaming boredom for drug habits or unplanned pregnancies or low achievement on standardized tests.  We should not give boredom that kind of power over us.

Here’s how.

First, whenever you catch yourself saying or thinking, “I’m bored.”  Stop.  Don’t say it.  Go to the bathroom.  Look in the mirror.  Give yourself a pep talk.  You’ll probably only have to do this once or twice.

Say: “You are in charge of yourself.  You are your own master.  You do not have to be bored.”

Then, take a deep breath and look around you.  What do you see?  If you see a mess, clean it up.  If you see a wall that’s a color you don’t like, make a plan to paint it–go online to do room mock ups, or get in the car and drive to the paint store.  If you see that your yard has sprouted 800 dandelions, remember when you were a kid and all the obnoxious or fun or delightful things you used to do with dandelions.  If you see a pile of paper, pick up a piece and draw or write something.  If you see a book, read it.  If you see the TV, look for something else.  If you see your spouse or children or roommate or sister or whoever, tell them you like them and ask if they want to go to the park.  Or if they want to make cookies or think about painting a room with you.  When you’re done, just keep looking.

If you can’t see anything to do, go to plan B.  Finding a way around boredom will get easier the more you practice.

These are things you can always do.

Tell yourself a story: any story, one from your past, one you want for your future, one you make up.
Doodle:  Here’s a TED talk about how cool doodling is.
Take a walk or a run or a hike or a dance.
Think.  Thinking is an activity. Sometimes, props help.  Like paper and a pen.  But it’s equally rewarding to just let your mind wander.
Clip your fingernails or toenails.

Here are things you can almost always do, but will need a prop (or several props), or a buddy.

Surf the Internet.
Ride a bike.
Go to the gym.
Cook something.
Have sex.
Skip rope.
Do hand-rhymes.
Go someplace, like the library or a museum or to your neighbor’s house.

Boredom is the enemy of enterprise, development, and learning.  Conquer it, my friends.  And be more productive.

Do any of you have strategies to combat boredom, or a favorite story about a boring time that became a not boring time because you scared up something fun to do?

How Plath’s Neatly Laid Plan For My Love Life Went Wrong

From Anosmia on, used under CC Attribution License


Now this particular girl
During a ceremonious april walk
With her latest suitor
Found herself, of a sudden, intolerably struck
By the birds’ irregular babel
And the leaves’ litter.

By this tumult afflicted, she
Observed her lover’s gestures unbalance the air,
His gait stray uneven
Through a rank wilderness of fern and flower;
She judged petals in disarray,
The whole season, sloven.

How she longed for winter then! —
Scrupulously austere in its order
Of white and black
Ice and rock; each sentiment within border,
And heart’s frosty discipline
Exact as a snowflake.

But here — a burgeoning
Unruly enough to pitch her five queenly wits
Into vulgar motley —
A treason not to be borne; let idiots
Reel giddy in bedlam spring:
She withdrew neatly.

And round her house she set
Such a barricade of barb and check
Against mutinous weather
As no mere insurgent man could hope to break
With curse, fist, threat
Or love, either.

by Sylvia Plath

Here’s a source for more info, if you wish.  Lots of sounding off about readings of this poem in the comments, some of them are grammatically wonky in hilarious ways.

Today is Poem in your Pocket day.  Lucky (or not?) for you, my pocket is on the internet.

A bit of history: Sylvia Plath was married to Ted Hughes, the British poet.  Their Correspondence is on my To Read list.  Plath committed suicide in 1963.

I read this poem when I was about 14.  I learned the following words from it: bedlam, burgeoning.  And, for many years, my internet handle was vulgarmotley.  Because of this poem.

Also, my pubescent mind was totally taken by the notion of spinsterhood, or–as I read the poem in my youth–indulging in romance on my terms, and nearly always being home alone.  Spinsterhood did not mean frigidity, it meant independence, freedom.

I am part of a large-ish family, the oldest of four children. My mom had two babies (who are now simply lovely grownups) when I was old enough to help.  Consequently, I spent about 8 years yearning for solitude until I moved out of my parents house lickety split upon graduating from high school.

I was probably about sixteen when I started envisioning a future for myself in which I would take what I used to call “a string of lovers,” but what I meant was probably closer to “terms of serial monogamy lasting however long was useful spiritually, physically, or emotionally.”

I also used to say that I did not want babies because my mom had enough for both of us.  And I tried to get my tubes tied as a young adult, but was told that I could not.  They’re tied now–obliterated more like–and I’m still totally confused about whether having a baby when I did was a good thing, and whether it remains one.

I loved living alone.  I loved my 20s.  I loved living alone with a baby.  But living alone with a baby is exhausting, and call me short sighted and selfish, sex is a pretty excellent part of adulthood.  Unfortunately, getting laid as a single parent in safe, reasonable circumstances is almost impossible.

Enter my first-time-ever yearning for a romantic partner, a couple-three years of internet dating hijinks (most of which I feel rather stupid over and would prefer to forget), and the super-special Fella with whom I now live, and am proud to announce have been entangled with for nearing four years, and if you count the year for which I made him email me before I would meet him, closer to five.

And while I find the challenges of partnerhood and parenthood to be rewarding, I do miss solitude.  I miss the adventure of fresh lovers.  Some days, I want to stop the ride and change my mind.  I want to wind back time 7 or 8 years and talk myself into that adoption scheme I’d carefully cooked up but abandoned for reasons that made sense at the time.

So today, when I read this poem that used to fill me with hope for the future and certainty that it was all right not to want what all the other girls wanted, I am filled with nostalgia and the irony of the fact that I now have precisely what I never wanted, and I am mostly pleased, and even able to return to the ambition of my solitude.

It also strikes me as significant that Plath killed herself at 31, and I am 31.  This is my Plath year.

What specific passage or poem in literature influenced your thinking when you were developing your sense of yourself?  I’d love to hear your stories.

“Have You Heard of the Brony Phenomenon?”

from dreamcicle19772006 on Would you be worried if this was your bro's bedroom? I think I'd be proud.

Yesterday, Child was watching My Little Pony on Netflix when Fella got home from work.

He said to me, “Have you heard of the Brony Phenomenon?”

I said, “Sounds like a three-year-old saying bologna.”

He laughed and said, “It does, but that’s not what I’m talking about.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Bros who love ponies.  Heterosexual men in their twenties–though I’m sure there are some who aren’t–who love watching My Little Ponies.”

The ponies squealed from the TV in the other room with their high-energy love for all things pink and their insipid social hijinks and I thought for a moment, “This can’t be real.”

Oh but it can.  Boy can it ever.  Holy birds.

On to the Bronies

Apparently, it’s Brony singular and Bronies plural.  There are memes and videos and rather a lot of this kind of strange, incredulous confessional.  NPR got it here, and Wired has it in this article.

In my googling this morning, I came across those two links above, but–somewhat disturbing to me–some “concerned” questions on Yahoo answers and about male relatives who are bronies requiring some kind of intervention.  A particularly judgemental blog post by a woman who finds bronies to be disturbing and then rails off with some pro-family/anti-different rhetoric.

Aside from the fact that I shudder to think what would occur on 4Chan, Reddit, and their troll-magnet counterparts–plus all the fan-girl generated Memes and forums and blogs and other content factories–if a group of female adults decided that a specifically “male” show, like say Johnny Test or  Bob the Builder or GI Joe (do they still have that?  I heard they’re remaking Thundercats) was worthy of obsession: certainly, those women would be labeled dykes in a heartbeat and scorned with hate speak, and some how the conservative/tea party/religious right pundits would figure out a way to spin it into meaning that women can no longer be trusted with their own uteri; I’m kind of fascinated by the Bronies.

Maybe there is some women-who-dig-Handy-Manny phenomenon, but we wouldn’t know about it, because there would be no polite little articles about it on Wired or interest from “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on NPR.

Still, I dig the bronies.

I do not dig MLP, but that this is happening, I think, bodes well for women in the future.

Here’s what I mean: Enough men have to evolve beyond believing that women are stupid ninnies in great enough numbers such that majority populations (beyond just the women themselves) agree that, for example, women should vote.

This sucks and is massively depressing, but it’s an American historical precedent, and we’ve been trying to get rid of it for almost 100 years, to a still-too-great ineffect.

While women have been bucking gender stereotypes on a small scale for generations, there are still more people who would prefer to keep us safe and sound in our kitchens, willing depositories for multiple daily ejaculations, and whenever we’re not, tucked away in some public school someplace as a teacher, or servicing some (male) executive or attorney’s busy schedule.

If you are lucky enough to live in an area that’s more urbane than where I do, and you doubt me, according to the Women’s Labor Bureau, just over half of all women ages 16 and older were part of the work force (not necessarily employed, but looking for work) during 2010.

And yes, it’s true that a lot of women prefer to not work (ahem because they’ve been indoctrinated by patriarchal rhetoric since birth, or it is legitimately their preference), and it’s also true that statistics can be presented in such as way as to be lies, and it’s also true that it’s not necessarily safe to assume that the statistics complied by the government are carefully and soundly collected and agenda free.

But here’s why I see Bronies as a total win for women and for feminism.

1.  Bronies are YOUNG.  20-30, typically.  Some younger & older outliers.  Probably mostly childless.  Young people get to determine the future mores.  If young men are flexible enough about gender to be MLP fans, they’ll remember that when their daughters want to play football or go to college for welding.  I hope.

2.  I’m not aware of any cultural events as significantly blind to (or ignoring) gender as this one during my lifetime.  Men have not started taking up teaching or being secretaries or nurses or other traditionally “female” jobs in record numbers, or wearing pink.  Men have not started reading chick lit or romance in large enough numbers to warrant mention in media.  I really think that this sets a precedent of making it more okay for people–hopefully both women and men–to express preferences and sympathies that cross traditionally gendered media, careers, etc.  Perhaps notions of gender will get so watered down that by the time Child is having kids, there won’t be “girl” TV shows or “boy” TV shows.

Of course, it could also be posited that this is all a symptom of an absolute shit job market, and that when it improves, the men won’t return to work introspective and evolved, they’ll be angry that they were so very demoralized and emasculated while they were unemployed, they’ll shirk their bronie badges and they’ll rally toward a dark, villainous reign of terror, and who will be their subjects?  Yup, women.  And like we did after the second world war, we’ll probably let them to a large extent.  After all, time does seem to be peddling slowly backward in terms of women’s rights…

What do ya’ll think, blog readers?  Sound off in the comments.

How To Be Insanely Productive: Lessons from the April Line School of High Energy Living

From ishane on Flickr.

People have been asking me lately, “How do you do it?  How do you get so much stuff done?”  These are usually my fellow self-employed friends and they are typically asking with respect to my blog.  I spend a lot of time on my blog.  A LOT.  I also freelance consistently for one publishing company and a handful of publications.  I’m also a mother and a partner and a grownup with a modest (but rewarding) social life.

But I’ve always been a high energy person with big ideas who digs being turbo busy.  I had three jobs at a time in high school. I worked full time through college while making Dean’s list every semester.  I applied to grad school 1.0 while Child was an infant and I was a senior in college and running an eBay business.

I have held several sales jobs while freelancing as an editor and writer, being a single mom, and responsible for a domicile.  I’m not bragging.  This is all ridiculously insane, and if I keep going at the pace I’ve maintained for the past sixteen years, I will burn out by the time I’m forty.

But if you really want to know, this is how I do it:

 Be born blue collar.

I credit my ridiculous work ethic 100% to having been born into a family that doesn’t have much money but works really, really hard.  I’m productive because I have to be.  And I’m not going to blow any of that working class self-righteous smoke up your asses.  I’m not going to say, “I’ve worked damn hard for everything I have and that’s why I’m not a twat.”  I’m not a twat because I’m a nice person.  I have worked very hard in my life, but that’s because I’ve had to.  If given a choice, I wouldn’t have, but I would probably still be a nice person.  I know plenty of people who are nice who have led reasonably charmed lives.  I know lots of blue collar twats.  The source of twattery is not–as the blue collar set would have you believe–privilege.  The rest of this post applies regardless of the class into which you were born.

Acquire as many competencies as you can as early as possible.

When I was a kid, I loved learning how to do new things. I got bored quickly and would move on to the next thing. This did a number of things for my future productivity: It taught me how to self-motivate, and it gave me self-confidence. Here are some of the things I learned how to do before I was 20: play piano, play saxophone, paint ceramics, throw clay pots, take pictures, draw, dance, cook, sew, clean, write, read, do laundry, knit, crochet, paint, etc. To be fair, I’m only still interested in about seven of those things, and only any good at about 4 of them. But learning how to do things quickly and well sets you up to like yourself and be efficient as you go along in life. Since I was 20, I’ve learned to play guitar, knit & crochet better (though I am still a total rookie), make jewelry, do zumba, and write and read better. Continue to read and learn and grow. That will make you like yourself more, which will make you more interested in pushing your personal boundaries, which will mean that you’ll be more motivated to do more stuff.

Get Acquainted with Dawn’s asshole.

I get up at 5.  Sometimes earlier.  On weekends, when I sleep in, I sleep till 6.  Stay in bed till 7.  Monday through Friday, I’ve accomplished more than most people do all day by 9:00 a.m.  I’ve grown & drawn boundaries, and I feel positive about a five-day work week these days.  But if I didn’t have a child and partner who want to spend time with me, I would do this seven days a week.  If you can’t get up, stay up.  Work into the night.  I used to do it that way.  Work till 2:00 a.m., get up at 9:00 a.m.  The get up early model works better for me now because I am mom.

 If you are feeling shitty and you need a day off, take it.

I only relatively recently–within the past two years–started this policy, but it increases my productivity because I get all the wallow or sick out of my system, then I can return to my pursuits with full steam energy and effort instead of diminished-by-moodiness-or-illness energy and effort which can be embarrassingly lackluster.  Plus, when I push through sickness or the doldrums, I hate myself for not getting anything done, and then I keep not getting anything done because my energy is all negativity and fatalism and not positivity and gumption.

 The glass is half full.

My cliche mantras:  It could always be worse; At least I’m not dead; I’m good enough, smart enough, and people like me.  These are the little truisms that keep me going, that keep me looking on the bright side.  It’s not enough to just say them, though.  You have to believe them.  You have to know that your life is never as shitty as it could be, and that around every corner is an opportunity waiting for you to grab on and charge forward.  You have to know–without needing affirmation–that you’re good and smart and people like you.

Take advantage of every minute.

Here’s how to do housework when you’re already booked past full: It only takes five minutes to do dishes.  It takes about ninety seconds to move laundry if you have to go to a different floor.  It take six minutes to fold laundry if you’re anal about it like I am, less time if you’re not.  It takes about four minutes to vacuum a big room.  It takes fifteen minutes to scrub hell out of a bathroom, ten minutes to sweep and mop the kitchen.  Whenever you’re waiting for something to happen, do something else.  If you’re baking some macaroni or chicken, run up and clean the bathroom till the buzzer goes off.  If you’re ready to go and you still have five minutes till you have to leave, do the dishes. Go to the grocery store as early in the morning as possible, that’s when the fewest people are there so it will go faster.  Whenever you go to the basement with laundry or supplies, bring up something you need.  If you can choose, put your laundry machines on the same floor as the bedrooms.  In short: be efficient.  A cool thing that can help you even more with this is using the Pomodoro Technique’s free timer.  There’s a DROID app, too.  Working in bursts of 25 minutes will keep you focused, plus give you five-minute breaks to do dishes or laundry.

Sometimes you have to give yourself a treat.

For me, productivity and accomplishment are often their own rewards.  But I’m also a deeply moody person and can be too sensitive and pissy without reason.  Sometimes, I have to go get myself a ridiculous decadent coffee from Starbucks.  Breve and extra espresso and whipped cream and all of it.  Or I have to have an absurdly carby meal.  Once in a while, do whatever gives you superfluous joy or gratification.  It sometimes helps to bribe yourself: If you know that you can do anything if you get to have a long, hot bath, promise yourself one once you accomplish a micro goal.


I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately, since I’ve been working out with intention.  But when I was younger, I ran my face off as a food server around everything else, so I’ve usually practiced this in my life.  Getting sweaty is key to optimum productivity.  Do this in a way that gives you satisfaction and as little discomfort as possible. I am ridiculously motivated by self-sufficiency and money, so waiting tables was a good match for me.  Now that I can’t fit that into my life anymore, I do Zumba. If you love to run, run.  If you love to dance, dance.  If you love to hike, do that.  If your thing is outdoors, have a bad-weather backup plan. Do not make excuses, just do it–at least three times a week.

 Make time for the important stuff.

This is the hardest one for me.  I have no trouble at all feeling urgency about getting work done for money. Sometimes, I have to force myself to acknowledge the importance of leisure and family time. Money is not as important as good relationships or being a good parent.  Volunteer at your kid’s school as much as your schedule will allow.  Spend time with your partner or best friends.  Write emails with people who are important to you but who live far away. Your work will always still be there tomorrow. These things will keep stuff in perspective.  Perspective will keep you moving.

Know your own boundaries.

You can’t push yourself past your own physical limitations.  If you need 8 hours of sleep a night, take it.  If you can’t exercise three times a week, do it as often as you can.  If you can’t work for 6 hours straight, take breaks.  Get to know yourself while pursuing productivity, and if you must push past your boundaries, work up to it systematically: Every day, do another five minutes or hour of x, reward yourself, and drink coffee.  Be careful with other, less-legal uppers.  I almost called this post the Honorary Crack Files, but I didn’t want you to think that I’m getting ramped up with drugs.  I’m not.

Have a clear sense of your goals in both short and long term.

My ten year goal now is to be able to make enough money just from my blog. I want people to come to me for services without prospecting.  I can do this, and I will.  My shorter term goals include finishing the MFA ahead of schedule, and get a couple of tidy, nice-paying writing gigs so I can give up some of the work that I derive lesser satisfaction from.  My goals for this week are to read 600 pages and do another five pitches to my current target publications, Bust and Paste.  I am constantly re-evaluating these goals and priorities and building action plans around them.

Reuse your work, take shortcuts, and ask for help.

If you’ve done a piece of work, make it work for you in a different context: if you’re a writer, re-sell your stories, or use your research to do different pitches.  If you design something, figure out how to use that design for other, similar projects.  Start from scratch as little as possible.  Google Passive Income.  Almost everybody has a potential passive income source.  Find yours.  If you find a fast way to do something that does not diminish the quality of the final product, use it.  There is honor in making the most of your time, even if it you’re not using a classically perfect method.  Also, use technology.  If you don’t know how, learn.  It will make your life easier and will give you back time you wouldn’t otherwise have. Email saves me tons of time.  Instead of a list of phone calls that need to be made during business hours, I can write emails at any time, and schedule them to send at appropriate hours.  Asking for help can be anything from reading a blog by a person who does what you want to do but does it more effectively, to asking other human beings for help, starting a child care co-op, or setting up a chore share with your roommates, partner or spouse.

Don’t get down on yourself if you don’t get everything done.

If you fall short of your goals, don’t fret.  Step back, re-evaluate, and do better next time.  There’s always a next time.  Some failures do not mean failure is constant.  It just means that you have things to learn.  Learn them and bear forth.  Be diligent and thorough, and the rest will follow.

The Reading Life: More on Chairs by Andrew Merton

After a completely sane, reasonable, temperate email exchange with Andrew Merton following my review of some of the poems in his book, Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, I feel like it’s important to share a couple of the poems from the book that didn’t get my knickers in a feminist lather.

Also, it begs repeating: Merton is, himself, a feminist.  He’s written extensively on womens issues and is one of the few men to have ever been published in Ms. Magazine.

As I mentioned in the original post, there are a lot of poems that are really funny and can’t be read as anti-feminist at all.  So I’m going to share some of these with you now.

Here’s one of the funniest ones:

My favorite line is, “because astrology is serious business.”

And I think the last stanza here shows–in particular–Merton’s personal sympathy with women.

Here is another funny one about the moon’s cliches.

And finally, “Why I Left The Poetry Reading Early” beautifully describes a writer’s sense of awe and neurosis around writers she admires.

I liked to imagine while I read this one that the poet Merton was talking about here was Billy Collins, a former US Poet Laureate whose work is also frank and funny.

The Reading Life: Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs, poems

Book Cover: Andrew Merton's Evidence that We Are Descended from Chairs

Whenever I read, I’m always dissecting the author’s psychological process.  Not, I promise you, whether the events of a story or poems mirror an author’s own life.  I am a fiction writer, so I know that it’s almost always synthesis or loads of practice or having paid careful attention.  It is hard to write interestingly about one’s own life.  Unless you’re David Sedaris, and when it’s brass tacks, it’s probably hard for him, too.

What I’m looking for in the words of other writers is clues about how they feel about things: issues, people, events; or insights about their writing process: sometimes you can tell when a writer gave up and took a short cut, or you can locate his “real” story in the words that are there–that is, you can see a writer’s affection more clearly than the writer himself can, if you read carefully.

As much as I want to turn off this readerly impulse, I can’t.  Perhaps it is what makes me a writer, or maybe it is deeply ingrained from those hundreds of hours I spent in writing workshops.

If you read here regularly, you know that I’ve been feeling a little bit militant about injustices toward women and the way we American women seem to be keeping ourselves in these corners of oppression, and how our politicians are happy enough to help us stay there.

The Book & what one has to do with the other

Andrew Merton is a professor of writing at University of New Hampshire, and I am lucky enough to be reviewing his first book of poems called, Evidence That We Are Descended from Chairs because of the Guest Post by Joy Jacobson that appeared on this blog a few weeks ago.

Imagine my fancy when I read–perhaps erroneously, more on this later–some poems that seem to be truly angry at women in this utterly delightful collection.

Don’t misunderstand: I am not calling Merton a misogynist.  The poems are art, and exist outside of Merton’s consciousness, or perhaps in spite of it.  Perhaps I’m identifying Merton’s anger with his mother or wife, isolated to those two people and nothing to do with women in general.  Or maybe I’m misreading it all together.  The book provides for much thematic wrangling, to review each poem or theme would be to write a second book.  So I’ll take a closer peek at these few poems I read as being non-feminist.

Perhaps Merton’s poems that deal with women angrily are presented as a critique of the things men say about women, I’m thinking specifically of one called, “The Way Women Are,” whose first two lines are, “She says there’s no reason for me to be jealous,/ even though he’s good with his hands.”   The implication here is that the woman in the poem is being unfaithful and lying about it, but the poem is about the speaker’s experience of that phenomenon, which he attributes to “the way women are about these things” in the last line of the poem.

There is one that he writes to the speaker’s progeny, “Advice My Daughter Will Probably Ignore,” in which he describes an eel of a man who is setting himself up to take advantage. The last two lines of the poem may indicate something of Merton’s observance of The Way Men Are. It goes, “by then,/you’ll have heard it all before.”

Taken as a collection, the poems are funny and insightful and largely unpretentious.  They are short, simple, revealing of the human condition.  Merton writes with sensitivity and freshness.  Former US Poet Laureate Charles Simic said it best in the foreword, “…he knows what it’s like to be at the other end of the stick.”

Another thing I love about these poems is the way the ones with epigraphs interact with them.  The poems literally speak to the epigraphs, often in humorous ways. Here’s a great, short example:


God does not play dice

Not, at least,
since that day in the garden
when He rolled snake-eyes. 

Back to the women

Here is a full example, and the first poem in the book, also set in the garden:

The Original Sin: Adam’s Story

God saw that I was lonely.
He was right about that.
The rib thing, though–

consider the stars,

the firmament,
the beasts, fish,
birds, all that.

Don’t tell me he had nothing left.

What I saw
when I saw Eve–
her long hair, breasts,
the absence between her thighs
was me.

That was all right
until the business with the snake,
the rising of my desire.

I have read this poem now four times and re-typed it one time.  I can’t not read the tone of blame in the last stanza: Eve was all right till she made me sin.

And maybe Merton’s intention is to draw attention to the absurdity of this social trope: the notion that all of men’s misbehavior can be attributed to women in some way.

But then there’s the poem, “All Hallow’s Eve,” in which Merton invokes both Joan of Arc and the witch who tried to eat Hansel and Gretel after the speaker “taste[s] his mother’s ashes.”  How is it productive to compare any woman to a misunderstood (probably delusional) warrior and a cannibalistic witch?  I want it to be productive.

So then, do I read this mother in this poem as Merton’s mother, so it is about one woman instead of all women?  Or do I read her as any mother, which would be sensible considering the references to well-known historical and literary female figures?  Do I interpret the reference to Joan of Arc as someone who was strong and impressive and unconfined by the cultural moment in which she lived (but then ultimately was when she burned as a sorceress and adulteress), and the reference to Hansel’s witch (Gretel’s apparently already been eaten) as something about hunger instead?

Now two things: These are five poems in sixty-some that it’s not even absolutely clear are overtly antithetical toward women as a group.  And they are still good poems.  In 1980, Merton wrote a book called, Enemies of Choice: Right-to-life Movement and Its Threat to Abortion.  It’d be hard to mistake the thesis of that book.  So clearly, Merton himself is fond of the notion of women as people with thoughts, ideas, choices, and rights.

But I think that the best poems offer multiple valid possibilities for interpretation, and I think the best poets are ready for questions like these.  So, Andrew Merton, write on.  I can’t wait to read your next book.


The Incredible Benefit of Writing In a Group

From Flickr User: Vancouverfilmschool

At Wildcat Comic Con, I gave a presentation called, “Know Thy Characters, Love Thy Villains: A beginner’s writing workshop.”

Check out the Slideshow in Powerpoint, or Download the PDF.

I’ve been giving writing workshops as much as possible lately because I love them.  If you’re in Williamsport and you want to take an incredibly inexpensive workshop with me at Pennsylvania College of Technology, click here.  I’m offering three that begin in about two weeks.

I always do group writing prompts in workshops.  In fact, the Know Thy Characters workshop was more prompt than presentation.  In my workshops at Penn College, we’ll do one prompt at every meeting.  The first ten minutes of class.  It gets us in the zone.

Last year, a lot of Big Thinkers were talking about how the workplace is trending more toward collaboration and socialization and how this is not good for certain types of creative introverts.  (Those links are gold, btw.  The first is to a NYT Column, the second to a very entertaining TED talk).   Penelope sees a lot of evidence of de-valuing the individual in Generation Y (of which my sisters are a solid part, and of which I am on the cusp–I was born in 1980.  Most of my behavior and the way I view the world is very Gen X.)

So I’m not here to tell you that you ALWAYS should write in a group.  No no no.

I will tell you that it’s probably almost always better to write alone.

But here’s what happens for me whenever I write in a group, or even with one other person, or even spend a few hours (not writing) surrounded by other creative people:

1. The gates between my inner and outer life are opened for a bit.

  • It’s really easy to get too lost in my own head, to forget that there’s a rest of the world, and to remember that my ideas are generally best when I let them out of my mental vacuum.

2. The energy of other creative people comes in through the gates.

  • I never get more breakthroughs in my thinking about my writing writing than when I’m writing in a group.  This is almost never a breakthrough in terms of phrase or diction, it’s an idea breakthrough.  For example, I’d been having trouble with a character in my book, Delta.  At Comic Con, when I was surrounded by creative people and taking part in this amazing buzz of enthusiasm and energy, Delta got an identity, or at least a skeleton of an identity.

3.  I surprise myself.

  • This is going to sound egomaniacal, but I surprise myself a lot in general.  I think that’s in large part because whenever I am alone, I am convinced that I’m an uncreative loser with nothing to contribute.  So whenever I have a great blog day or a big idea, I am surprised.  The ways in which I surprise myself whenever I write in a group are different.  I get these brilliant phrases and I think, “I don’t write that well.”  It’s attributable to the open gates thing, and to the fact that whenever I write in workshops, I do it with a pen on paper and not–where I do most of my writing–at the keyboard.

And Here’s What I’ve Noticed for my Students:

1.  They surprise themselves!

  • I’m using the Comic Con Workshop as an example because it’s the most recent, but this kind of stuff has always happened.  The writers who came to my workshop were all over the place in terms of their ages and writing achievements and ambitions.  I had very young students all the way up to adult students who were teachers themselves.  One guy found out that his villain wasn’t really a villain.  Another was surprised that her hero was more like a villain.

2.  They get more out of the workshop.

  • People are accustomed to getting droned at.  Sometimes, you can watch their brains shut off in their faces as they walk into a classroom.  Writing prompts, engaging in a creative process with other people, opens them up again.  Even if you only follow the prompt with one question, and that question is as lame as, “What did you think of that prompt?”, the students are re-engage and contribute more.  This engagement and contribution increases as the workshop proceeds.

3.  They get inspired.

  • The day I gave my workshop at WCC was my best weekend blog day to date.  Where I normally have 20 or fewer views on a weekend day I don’t post, Saturday of WCC I had almost 100.  People were looking for my workshop.  So that’s one action, but another–and one that I’m sure happened, and may still be happening–is that the folks had big ideas that have helped to propel their stories.  Some of them even told me that they never thought about loving their characters before, especially their villains, and they seemed jubilant about it.

So do you want to get inspired?  Come to my workshop.  The ones at Penn College will be a ton more involved than the one provided here, and I won’t be using Powerpoint (at least not all the time).


A Baker’s Dozen Authors Who Made Me Want to Be a Writer, In Roughly Chronological Order

From via Scott Woods-Fehr

First, a note:  I don’t know if it’s true that these authors made me want to be a writer.  I think that any authors I read would’ve made me want to be a writer.  I think I already wanted to be a writer.  When I was too little to write, I knew it was what I wanted.  So while it feels true that these authors made me want to be a writer, if I had different parents or lived in a different place, this list would be different.  So what is probably more accurate is that these people influenced my young mind and made me want to write well.  But who would read a blog post with a title like that: Twelve Authors who Influenced My Mind?  Authors who made me want to be a writer is less pretentious, and I don’t think this list is too pretentious.  I didn’t have good guidance for choosing authors till college.  My parents are smart, creative people, but they’re poorly educated and not really into the kind of cultural awareness that doesn’t come from Rush Limbaugh or the Bible.

1. Roald Dahl.  Starting in maybe first grade with Matilda.  There are still a couple of titles I’ve not read, but I love how frank and funny he is.  Also, so began my lifelong Britophilia.

2.  Madeline L’Engle. I was so fascinated by those turbo-brainy kids and their secular, sciencey parents.  I read A Wrinkle in Time first, then the rest of the books in that quintet.  I didn’t read anything else by her.

3.  Wally LambI had a friendship with my fifth grade teacher when I was in fifth grade.  As an adult and mother, it seems strange to me, but I guess I’ve got a sort of old soul.  Right now, the people I consider to be the dearest friends are at least twenty years older than I.  This was in the early years of Oprah’s Book Club, and I borrowed Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone from the Bosler Free Library in Carlisle, PA.  It was much, much too mature for me, but I loved it with the love of a thousand cinnamon jellybeans.  I think, however, if I read it now, I’d be annoyed with Lamb for writing a fat lesbian.  I would feel like it was further patriarchal oppression.  Or something.  I haven’t read anything by Lamb since.

4. Sylvia Plath.  When I was in junior high, I read The Bell Jar at the recommendation of a slightly older friend.  This is another book that was probably just a touch beyond me, but I remember giving a report about the book in my sixth or seventh grade reading class and taking a very long time, and my teacher being visibly annoyed by the length of my presentation.  In college, I read some of Plath’s poetry, which I admire a great deal.

5. Paul ZindelI read The Pigman because my mom talked about it.  That’s really all I remember as far as the impetus.  Then I read all of the other Pigman books, and some of Zindel’s others, too.  I don’t remember anything about them now, except, vaguely, that they dealt with pubescent relationships.  I think they were like the throw-away fiction of my youth.  Still, for a time, I was fairly obsessed with Zindel’s books.

6. AviAvi’s been busy since my youth.  He had maybe five books out when I was in jr. high.  Now there are several dozen.  I read as many of them as I could, but mostly because I’d read someplace that he named one of his characters his real name backward, so I wanted to know, naturally.  I was twelve or something.  The book I remember, though, is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  I recommend it to other young women even still.

7. John Irving. It started with The World According to Garp, and then I read most of the others that were available in the mid-to-late 90s.  Irving was the guy who made me want to write sex, which is what I spent most of my college years doing.

8. W. Somerset MaughamOf Human Bondage changed my life.  I thought, “Literature is powerful!”  I am amused when people raise one eyebrow over the title.  If you’re doing that now, I promise you’ll be disappointed by the reality.  It’s a modern novel about a quest for self.

9. J.D. SalingerOf course, right?  I mean, who didn’t identify with Holden Caulfield and love him?  Ahem, some of the people in my high school English class.  I will say this: in high school English, I couldn’t stop reading at the end of the assignment.  It was pure pleasure to read, and I liked all of it.  Except I also had a job, so sometimes I would only read the assignment.  And one time, in the WHOLE academic year in 10th grade, and probably in all of high school, when we read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t do my homework.  And somehow the English teacher knew.  I have never had much of a poker face.  And so she did this thing where she said, “move your desks forward if you have done your homework.”  I hadn’t done my homework, so I sat on the periphery of the discussion that day.  It was embarrassing and of course I was pissed that it was the ONE day I didn’t do my homework.  Then, at the end of the year, the teacher cited the day as evidence of my strong character. She said, “I know April wasn’t the only one who didn’t do her reading, but she was the only one who was honest about it.”  At the time, I thought that was incredibly cool.  I felt seen.  But I had a thing for strong-willed, vaguely abusive grownup women when I was a teenager.  I had a boss like that who I inexplicably loved.  Now, I’m not so sure what Mrs. Davis was trying to accomplish, who the lesson was for, and what possible pedagogical or theoretical benefit it could’ve provided.  Also, everything J.D. Salinger has written is totally worth reading.

10. Lorrie MooreGod, her writing is so smart it glows in the dark.  I’ve read all of her short story collections and two of her novels.  Her latest novel is on my to-read list.  Lorrie Moore was the first contemporary literary writer I read in college.  A slew have followed, and I’m kind of bummed that I can only pick two more based on my own rules.  The first time I applied to MFAs, I applied to UWisc Madison, strictly because of L.M.  If they’d taken me, I would’ve gone.

12. Amy HempelYou know, Amy Hempel is also brilliant.  I re-read The Collected Stories every year, and every year, one story stands out.  For 2010 it was, “The Most Girl Part of You.”  For 2011 it was, “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep.”  I keep that book on my desk at all times.  Whenever I’m feeling blocked or sad or stupid, I grab it up and read a passage.  It gets me right back on task.

13. Brock Clarke.  Clarke is a damn character genius.  He invents the most affectionately flawed, barely likable idiots, and I love them.   His observances about the human condition are acute, and his writing is totally without the frilliness of self-indulgence.  That is rare in a male writer.  (Forgive me, male writers, but ya’ll are far too culturally indulged.)

And just because I don’t like rules, even my own, I’m going to say one/two more:

14. Emily Bronte & George Eliot, a.k.a Mary Ann Evans.  I was so inspired that these women bucked the system to pen and publish the novels that lived within them.  Also, I love the antique diction of the Victorians & their melodramatic characters & plot twists.  Everybody’s always fainting and being martyrish.  Delicious.

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

Weeks To Geek: Impressions of Walter Koenig & Geek Culture

Walter Koenig is writing graphic novels these days.  His newest one, Things to Come # 2, is available on Amazon.

That’s why he was at the Wild Cat Comic Con, which was held this past weekend at Pennsylvania College of Technology.  You can read about my involvement with the con here and here and here.

I did not attend his presentation, which was about the graphic novels, but at the closing ceremony of the con, Koenig gave a Q&A and shared his short film with a public audience for the first time.

Here’s his head shot:

Walter Koenig Head Shot

I didn’t watch Star Trek much.  I saw a few episodes when I was a kid, but more The Next Generation,  than the original, and I enjoyed it well enough, but I couldn’t conjure a mental image when I heard that Koenig was going to be at the Con.  I consulted IMDb and checked out his website, and felt confident that I would have another 40 hours of media catch up to play in order to be equipped to comment adequately on his work.

So I offer the following as a Trekkie outsider.

My experience at WCC’s closing ceremony

Koenig is tiny and frail and he wears a big, black jacket.  He wears a black baseball cap.  Baseball caps always make people look like cartoon characters.  From my seat in the audience, I can’t tell if his coat is leather, but it looks heavy on his shoulders.  Maybe he is hunched with age.  That head shot makes him look at least a decade younger than he does in person.

Even though his physical presence is microscopic, he commands the stage with grace and humor.  His voice has the lilt of a person who had training in diction back when Hollywood cared about such things.

He shows us a short film he made called “Handball,” that is more self indulgent character sketch born out of grief than contribution to the film canon.

I think, “when you’re a guy who was part of a show that people now treat like a religion, you can do that,” and I feel like it’s okay.

The film deals with loss and haunting.  Maybe you know that Koenig lost a son too recently.  Anyone who’s lost a child, no matter how long ago, has done it too recently.

At the end of the film, “For Andrew” flashes across for a few seconds.

After the film, a man in the audience who is old enough to know better asks, “Is Andrew your son?”

Koenig’s discomfort is clear.

Later, the same man asks, “So was the film about your son?”

Koenig’s discomfort is clearer.

Later still, someone else asks a more intrepid question about the connection between the obvious theme of loss in the film and Koenig’s son.  Koenig says, at that point, something like, “You never get over losing a child.  Sometimes you try to think about something else, you have to.”

I am embarrassed for the people who are asking questions in the audience.  With only two exceptions, the questions are masturbatory and showy and designed by the askers to indicate how much privileged understanding they have of Star Trek and what they imagine to be true about Koenig as a person, instead of his character, Anton Checkov.

They seem to be folks who fail to understand the difference between fiction and nonfiction, reality and make believe.

They insist on asking him about multiple science fiction movies, even though he clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  He says his favorite film last year was Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which makes me so happy.

The aesthetic in his short film is realism.

He is clearly bewildered by the audience’s insistence that he is like them.  Or maybe I project my own bewilderment, it must be something he’s used to.

I can’t help but pity him for his fifty-year career that’s besotted by fans who fail to recognize the difference between a character and the actor who plays him.  I think about that funny, but smart movie, Nurse Betty.

And I pity the geeks, too:  The people who believe that he’s something more than a regular guy, an artist, who lives in a posh house in California somewhere, who has more money than most people, and who also happened to play a beloved role on a beloved show which became another show which became another show which became some movies and a bunch of toys and stuff.*

I am relieved for him when the time is up, when Koenig can go sit in his first-class airplane seat and warm himself with a cup of tea and think about himself and the world and be sad.

He deserves to be sad.  But he is motoring forth.  His website is abuzz with projects and ideas.  He even has a blog.

If only more of us regular people could be like Walter Koenig the man, instead of dressing up like his character on Star Trek.

*It begs mentioning that not a single person asked a single question about his more recent Babylon 5.