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Archive for the ‘Self-Absorption Dept.’ Category

A Congress of my past selves convenes
Hotly debating how to appropriate
The dull foul-smelling coins
That make more jingling sound than they can buy —
An outmoded currency, this rage.
They argue from all the times I’ve switched selves
That beliefs aren’t immutable. They stand me before a murder board
As if I were the head of some agency
Wanting me to testify, or keep silent and play it safe,
Because we all only speak in gaffes,
Duly spun and misinterpreted.
We can’t seem to resolve the impasse
And so I sit watching them move across the screen.
My agency has been shut down.
The hours filibuster one another,
True hijackers of democracy,
Tolling pitiless laws no vote can delay.

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Still Life with Turkey Pie - 1627 - by Pieter ClaeszThe other day I realized I hadn’t updated the blog in over a year. Partly it’s because I wanted to focus on writing books rather than blog posts. But this being the holiday time of year, I figure a blog post can function a bit like the traditional annual Christmas letter to sum up my life for the people I don’t otherwise keep in touch with as well as I should.

Life for me still largely revolves around writing, and this has been a pretty productive year on the writing front. Two posts ago I mentioned that I had finished a historical novel (the third novel I’d written) set in France in the late 1850s. In the Fall of 2011 I queried a small number of agents on it, mostly to stick my foot in the water and get a sense of how much interest there might be in it. A couple of agents asked to see the manuscript, and one liked it but sent me five pages of editorial notes on changes she wanted to see. This was encouraging but also helped me see that there was a lot more work to be done. I had in the meantime started on a new manuscript (novel #4) that I was thinking would be a contemporary comic novel in the style of Christopher Buckley, with Mormons and spies in it. But I wasn’t very happy with how it was going, and it was dawning on me that I was not Christopher Buckley, so I set that one aside. I went back and spent about 6 months rewriting the historical novel, aka Novel #3.

In the spring I sent the revised version of Novel #3 to the agent who’d been interested in it. In the meantime she’d gotten very busy, and so while I waited for her to read it and get back to me, I started on a new book idea, which I’ll call novel #5. As the months dragged on with no answer on Novel #3, I kept thinking I should start querying other agents on Novel #3, but was crazy busy at that point myself, between working full-time, trying to keep my daughter entertained, trying to keep our apartment mostly free of health-code violations, and squeezing in writing time wherever I could, to keep up the momentum on Novel #5. So I didn’t get around to querying anyone until about a month ago. To my surprise, I’ve gotten a much stronger response than I ever have before on a book. I don’t want to get anyone’s vicarious hopes up, but I have sent out some partial and full manuscripts to some pretty good agents. What’s next? If you guessed “a lot more waiting for responses,” a gold star for you!

Meanwhile, I’m about 26,000 words into the first rough draft of Novel #5. It’s going to be another historical novel, but this time set in the ancient world, in the time of Christ, about the life of Judas Iscariot. Credit for the initial idea goes to my boyfriend, who is also a writer and is nice enough to let me steal his ideas. Apart from being a wonderful person, he has more cool story ideas in a morning than most people could come up with in a decade. One major challenge with this book, however, is that the historical research is so much fun, I keep just wanting to read and read and read instead of getting down to writing.

Also, I’ve signed up to go to my first ever full-blown writers conference! It’s in New York City in December, and is sure to be an adventure.

On the publishing front, it’s been a busy year as well – through my little micropublishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, I’ve published Steve Peck’s novella A Short Stay in Hell as well as a nonfiction book by two former-Mormon sociologists of religion, Ryan Cragun and Rick Phillips, called Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election-Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion. (Spoiler: They don’t tell you who to vote for in the end.) And I’ve committed to publish one more book, a novel by Eric Jepson called Byuck, which is coming out shortly … in fact, writing this blog post handily allows me to procrastinate on some work I should be doing for it right now!

But the biggest news of all is on the personal front: My daughter is now in kindergarten! Yes, she is a big sophisticated school-ager now. She has definitely enjoyed the increased prestige. But the actual going to school? Not so much. I can’t say I blame her, because I never really liked school either. Luckily she only has seventeen more years to go!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here’s hoping yours is wonderful and food-filled!

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Best American Essays 2011My essay “Farzad, Son of Glory,” is on the list of Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2011! This is pretty exciting, because when I started with creative writing a few years ago, that was a goal I had in mind for some misty far-off future era when I’d have toiled long and hard in the salt mines of literary exertion. I clearly have lots more toiling and literary exerting to do, but still, there’s nothing like having a dream come true.

The essay was originally published in Bayou Magazine (from the University of New Orleans), Issue 53, in summer 2010.

You can read the essay here.

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Concussion mechancis

Concussion Mechanics, by Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator, via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been an eventful spring and summer in some ways, so I thought I’d do another catch-up post.

May: Concussion

In mid-May I had an odd experience. I was coming home from a dinner with friends at restaurant downtown around 11:00 at night, and took the American University shuttle bus from the Tenleytown metro station, which lets off near my apartment building so that I only have a 5-10 minute walk from the campus. The last thing I remember was getting off the bus, before waking up with everything dark, hearing voices over me:

“Was she assaulted?”

[muffled response]

“Okay,” says a voice near my head, “we’re just going to stitch you up. This might sting a bit.” The cold bite of a needle in my forehead, not painful, but cold. I open my eyes. The needle was just an anesthetic; now the actual stitching happens. It feels like something tugging at the skin on one side of my forehead.

“Where am I?” I ask, as the tugging stops and I hear the snip of scissors cutting the thread.

“You’re at George Washington University Hospital.”

“How did I get here?”

“An ambulance brought you.”

I mull over this and realize yes, I am lying in what appears to be a hospital bed, in a hospital gown. There are IV lines in my wrists. I put a hand to my head and feel that my hair is oddly matted and crunchy. It turns out I am covered with blood; my hair is saturated with it. The hospital bedlinens are also covered with it.

“What happened?” I ask. In retrospect I’m not sure why I was so calm, but nothing really bothered me too much about the situation at the time.

“We were hoping you could tell us that. You were found in the street on Nebraska Avenue. You got a pretty big bump on your head.”

It’s about two in the morning, I learn, and nobody knows exactly what happened to me. A night nurse tells me she saw my police report, which says that some witnesses found me on the ground and saw me throw up. I have a concussion and severe bruising on my knees and on the back of my left lower leg. Apparently when the ambulance came I was talking and moving around, but I couldn’t remember anything about myself to tell the ambulance workers other than my name and where I worked. I have no memory of any of this.

I still had all my clothes on and nothing had been stolen, so it appears the answer to that first question was no, I hadn’t been assaulted. Later I would formulate the theory that I’d been run over by a bicyclist or a moped, because of the bruises on the back of my left calf. They were too low to be from a car, but something had definitely run over me. I think a bike or something similar must have been coming up from behind as I got off the bus, and didn’t see me until it was too late. I still don’t know if it was the person who hit me who called the ambulance, or if it was a hit and run. I still don’t really know much at all about what happened.

They kept me in the hospital for two days. Whenever I stood up I was dizzy, and my bruises hurt a lot. I managed to rinse some of the blood out of my hair, but couldn’t really shower, and felt pretty gross. A handful of friends came to visit. When I was finally allowed to leave, I had to call someone to drive me home. The nurse gave me a bag with all my things in it. I tried to put my clothes on that I’d been wearing the night of the accident, but they’d all been cut up by the emergency room staff. They were soaked with blood and vomit and smelled horrible, so I threw them in the trash. A guy I’d gone on a couple of dates with, who’d come to visit me in the hospital and had brought me flowers and read to me for an hour, also bought me underpants from the hospital gift store – they were Hanes and they were huge granny undies that came up to my belly button. He was very embarrassed, but I appreciated having underwear. We are still dating.

My friend Tanya picked me up from the hospital and brought me some of her old clothes to wear, and drove me home (did I mention Tanya is a wonderful person? Check out her blog, and you’ll see what I mean.)

So that was kind of an adventure. In all I missed three days of work, and was dizzy for a week or two. Apart from the hospital bills, that was the worst of it. It could have been worse, and I feel pretty lucky, considering.

June: Novel #3

In June I finished the first draft of my third novel. It’s called What They Sought in the Sea, and is about a girl who washes up bruised and naked on the shore of a fishing village in Northern France in the 1850s. A local family takes in her, and they and their neighbors find their lives disrupted as they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s origins.

I’ve been revising the book since June and have gotten some good feedback from beta readers. I’ll be querying (more) agents on it soon.

July: Foray into Self-Publishing

A Lost ArgumentIn July I started to work on self-publishing my second novel, A Lost Argument, since despite a number of promising leads in the end I’d been unable to find an agent for it and didn’t have much hope for finding a publisher without an agent. In researching self-publishing, I gradually started to realize that with all the work that went into it, I could almost as easily set up my own press for publishing other people’s books.

The idea was kind of appealing to me, because as I’d tried to find a publisher for my book, I’d had some discussions with other former-Mormon writers who wrote about Mormonism. There are a lot of very talented people out there writing about their experiences in and out of the Church, but it’s hard to find a publisher because Mormons, let alone ex/post/former/alumni Mormons, are something of a niche audience. If you’re writing faith-affirming stuff, there’s always the chance of getting picked up by one of the handful of Mormon publishers: Deseret, Covenant, or even brave little Zarahemla Books (go them!) And every now and then you get the rare breakout book that catches the attention of mainstream publishers, like Elna Baker’s  New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, or Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints. But for the most part, ex/post/former/alumni Mormon writers are on their own. If I started my own press, though (I thought), I could maybe do my own little part towards finally giving that niche audience a home for those writers’ books.

And so I kept on researching …

August: Publication (and Novel #4)

And in August I registered my own publishing imprint, Strange Violin Editions, with the United States ISBN agency (Bowker) and bought a ten-pack of ISBN numbers. I bought the website domain name, and put in a registration with the Library of Congress so that in the future I’d be able to get cataloging-in-publication data for the books I published. And I published my novel as an e-book through Smashwords.com under the Strange Violin Editions imprint. Whoo-hoo! Next came the Kindle Edition on Amazon. Then I dove headfirst into the arcane world of print book design and formatting and immersed myself in the geeky details of typography, and finally uploaded the files for a paperback version on Amazon.

I also started a new novel, which will be my fourth. I haven’t picked a title yet, but it’s going to be a comic novel (a la Christopher Buckley, hopefully) about a high-ranking Mormon Church leader gone bad who’s secretly working to undermine the Church. When he takes a ditzy young artist for a mistress, the two get caught up in international intrigue and espionage. It’s going to be seriously fun to write, I think.

September: Introducing Strange Violin Editions!

That paperback version is finally available for sale. And I put together the Strange Violin Editions website. I’ll be sending around a formal call for submissions at some point, but the online submissions manager is already set up and ready to go, which means folks can start submitting now. And last week, I sent out a book contract to my very first author, Steven L. Peck (well, my first author other than me, that is!) It’s all coming together. Pretty exciting!

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Twisted Tree

After my marriage ended about a year ago, I had no real intention of dating, at least not through my own efforts. As it happened, I ended up doing a surprising amount of dating that just sort of happened without my feeling like I’d gone much out of my way to cause it. In this willy-nilly fashion, I ended up getting into a five-month-long relationship, which very recently ended – again, without my meaning it to. The unexpected breakup, as these things do, has me trying to make sense of why I got myself into this in the first place and where I go from here. And so in this post, I wanted to take some time to remind myself what my goals are with relationships and what it’s all about for me.

Relationships (not just romantic ones, but all kinds of relationships between people), like a lot of things, can be said to have a form and a content. The form is the shape it takes: how often you see each other, what kinds of things you do when you meet, the words you use to describe it and each other – “marriage,” “dating,” “boyfriend,” or “friend,” or “the person I’m seeing.” And then there’s the content – who you both are as individuals, what you bring out in each other, the shape your interactions take, the emotions they provoke.

When I was younger, I think I tended to focus more on the form of romantic relationship I wanted than the content. I wanted a fling, or a relationship, or a boyfriend, or a fiance, or a marriage, and it didn’t matter as much who exactly filled the role as long as the role was filled by some acceptable candidate. I think I wasn’t alone in this. I would occasionally go on dating sites or look at personal ads, and they were set up a lot like shopping sites and regular ads. There were so many people to sort through that you almost had to start off with a checklist. You set your criteria for a person in a certain age range, having x religious beliefs and y political beliefs and z non-negotiable interests or aversions. Having decided on your preferred format of personal qualities and the form of relationships you were aiming for (long-term, fling, etc.), you then shopped around for a person who fit into it. It was a lot like having a certain pair of shoes in mind – strappy white sandals with no more than a 2.5-inch heel for no more than $80 – and looking until you found just what you wanted.

That is one way of going about things. And there’s a certain lovely idealism in searching for the grand love affair, the one that includes flowers, nights of passion, stimulating conversation, shared aesthetics and values, and progresses to a tasteful, well-attended wedding and eventually growing happily old together, watching your grandchildren play and sipping lemonade out on the front porch. But in the end, that, too, is just another checklist.

Then there are those who talk of “settling.” Which seems to mean accepting that you might just not get everything on the list checked off, heaving a sigh, and going ahead with it anyway, but never really putting aside your resentment or sense of inadequacy about those boxes on the list that didn’t get a checkmark.

At some point, though, I’d had my fill of looking for the perfect form, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I had experienced all the main forms, and in the end, a form was just something empty, like a madeleine pan without any madeleines in it, or a jello mold without any jello. In the end, it was the organic shape the relationship took as it grew that made me and the other person either happy or unhappy. And so the goal stopped being a relationship of this or that kind, but authenticity in my interactions with the people around me and generally doing what made me and others happy (with all the caveats of ethics and social and moral responsibility). I decided I would try to just take the people I encountered for what they were and let that content dictate the form of my relationship to them. If I could love someone, I would love them, if I could like them, I would like them. If I enjoyed spending time with someone, I would try to spend more time with them, and so on. I’d worry less about what it was called and what it looked like to other people than about what it did for us.

So with the passing of this last relationship, I wonder what I’m mourning for. Am I more sad to lose the person, or am I just sad not to have a boyfriend anymore? I think even with my healthier philosophy of authenticity, it’s still easy to get caught up in the forms. It was nice being able to say I had a boyfriend, to put “in a relationship” on my Facebook page, to use plural pronouns like “we” and “us.” It was nice having an automatic date to bring to things like weddings and concerts. I will miss all of that.

But I have to remind myself that while the form might have fallen out of shape, the content is still there. We’re still the same people we were before, even if we’re no longer a “we.” The experiences and memories don’t lose their value just because they’re now of things I did with an ex instead of things I did with a boyfriend. And while nothing that comes to me in the future will ever take just the same shape that grew up with this past relationship, there’s an infinity of lovely, twisting and branching new structures that can form as I go on loving whomever I can love and liking whomever I can like, and spending time with people I enjoy being with, as much and as long as I can – or being alone when I need to be.

The pain of losing someone you care about can’t really be reasoned or blogged away, but still, I think it helps to remind myself of all this.

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Hotel AmerikaI have a new essay out, published in the latest issue of a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika, which is run by Columbia College in Chicago. The essay is called “A Surefire Recipe for Unassailable Faith, Involving Four Judgments and a Vegetable Analogy.” In it, I give my own homecooked recipe for getting faith and intellectual integrity to cohere. This one is pretty short and easy reading (relative to the last essay I had published, if you were one of the two people who tried to read through that one). Just four pages of literary-philosophic-culinary musings.

Incidentally, this shows what a long, long time it takes to get something published. When I wrote this a couple of years ago, I was still a housewife who spent a lot of time in the kitchen. Now I’m a divorced working single mom who, alas, rarely sees the kitchen.

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Ketchup

Photo by Gordon Joly, via Wikimedia Commons

Since I haven’t updated the blog in a few months, some catching up is in order. Here’s what’s been going on with me:

September

At the beginning of the month, I had an exciting work trip to Kansas City, Missouri. I hadn’t realized (as you probably hadn’t either) that Kansas City is actually a very cool place. My coworkers and I were there for a week, and during the days we were busy working, of course, as that was the point of the trip. But in the evenings we had some memorable meals. Kansas City is known for its barbeque, so one night we made a pilgrimage to Gates, a local chain. They are known for yelling, “HI, MAY I HELP YOU?” at you the second you walk in the door. In the spirit of adventure, I had the barbecued mutton, just because I’d never had mutton before. It was rich, fatty, and wonderful. (I am a fan of fat when it’s not (yet) on me.)

Another night we went to JP Wine Bar in the artsy district, and I had foie gras with peaches. Yum. It was as chic and the menu as sophisticated as any DC wine bar, but at better prices. We also went to Garozzo’s for red sauce-Italian one night. Hoo-eee, lots of garlic. I will never forget my appetizer of stuffed artichoke, which the waitress described as “light,” but when it came turned out to be an artichoke solidly packed to the gills with shrimp, cooked proscuitto, melted cheese, garlic-lemon-butter-suffused bread crumbs, and Lord knows what other sinful things, swimming in a big pool of cheesy melted butter. I’m not saying it wasn’t good, and I’m not saying I didn’t eat it, but it was about as light as an anvil.

The culinary highlight, though, was The American Restaurant. The restaurant was founded by the owner of the Hallmark Corporation, and the decor was a mix of really cool art-nouveau built-in architectual details and kind of odd hotel-ish furnishings.

American Restaurant

The American Restaurant in Kansas City, via CitiesAndMe.com

But the food was beyond amazing. If this place were in DC, you’d be paying $200 or $300 a plate, but being in Kansas City, it was considerably less, and hence a great value. I had foie gras (again!) with a sweet wine called Picolit, and a truly amazing poached egg, and … I just wish I’d taken notes on everything I had, because in the meantime the menu has changed and it was several months ago, so I can’t remember the many details. But there were cubed geléed things and homemade fruit leather-type things and tableside flambéed-things, seemingly incongruous combinations of things that worked wonders for each other as the flavors melded. If you’re ever in KC and you’re any type of gastronome, that’s the place to go.

I stayed an extra day and night in KC so I could do a little exploring and meet up with a friend from grad school who I hadn’t seen in ten years. Luckily for me, the day I was there on my own was a First Friday, which is a monthly event in the arts district where all the galleries and many other businesses stay open late and people gather and walk around and mingle. The morning before it started I found a nice independent coffee shop in the arts district, called Crossroads Coffee, and sat there and worked on editing my book for a good solid four hours.

As I was wrapping up with my writing and getting ready to go out to see the galleries, some musicians started playing. Normally I don’t go much to live music shows these days – they don’t fit too well with the mom lifestyle – but felt it would be sort of rude to leave just as they were starting. So I stayed and listened a bit and then got hooked and ended up staying through the whole first set – the singer, Danny McGraw, turned out to be extremely talented. I liked the music so much that I ended up going up to buy one of his CDs when he paused for a break. Definitely worth a listen if you get the chance.

INKubator Press

INKubator Press, via http://artsincubatorkc.org/

Then I hit the galleries, and the evening became increasingly surreal. There was an old-fashioned book bindery, and an “arts incubator” place with a real old-style printing press as well. I wandered down to the end of one street and found a hair salon that was functioning as a gallery for the evening, packed with art and people. In one corner, DJs were spinning vinyl records. I came out of the salon with my mind slightly blown by that, only to see a pack of about 20 men running down the street wearing nothing but diapers and athletic shoes. No explanations, just men in diapers.

I wandered in and out of more galleries and stopped to hear a few bands playing in alleys or on streetcorners or in parking lots. I stopped for a while at a drum circle in a vacant lot. There were heavily tatooed white girls, their hair in red dreadlocks or tiny braids, their eyes made up with curlicues of kohl at the corners, wearing black lingerie and giant electric-blue furry boots, dancing to the drum music with hula hoops of flashing lights in every color.

Later I wandered into a small gallery where the artist, a guy, was blatantly hitting on every girl who came in. I allowed myself to be hit on, because as a mom it’s not something that happens so frequently, so I figured why not just enjoy it? Then the artist-guy’s friend came by and the three of us got into conversation. Casanova-artist’s friend had a very elaborate tattoo on one leg that went from his thigh down to his toes, and he took off his shoe and sock so I could see it better. I mentioned that I had a daughter, and it turned out Mr. Casanova-artist had a daughter too … and a wife (ick). And then it turned out that Mr. Casanova-artist’s tattoo-toed friend and his wife (not Casanova’s wife, but the friend’s wife) had quadruplets. Yes, quadruplets, and they had them naturally – it was a one in a million chance. They were born very early, of course, and only three of the four babies survived, but the rest were healthy. So basically, they were raising triplets.

And no, I wasn’t taking any hallucinogenic drugs that evening. That’s just Kansas City for you.

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum

Shuttlecocks at Nelson-Atkins Museum (via Matt Unruh, Emporia State University)

The next morning I met up with my long-lost friend from grad school, who’s now a professor at the University of Missouri, and met her husband for the first time too, which was great. We went to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and then went for barbecue at Jack Stack’s. Jack Stack was good, but the menu is a bit meat-heavy. You can get a meat appetizer, a meat main course with a side of meat, and then for dessert, they have a selection of meat brulee, creme de meat, meat parfait, or, on the lighter side, a few scoops of meat gelato. Okay, I’m kidding, but it was a whole lot of meat.

All in all, an excellent trip.

October 

  • My daughter and I moved from the DC-Maryland suburbs into a new apartment in DC proper.

November

  • The one-year anniversary of this blog!
  • Started a new novel! (See my Writing page for details.) Have not gotten much time to work on it so far, but it’s coming along.
  • Spent Thanksgiving in Tucson, and my daughter got lots of good Grandma time in and got into all kinds of highjinks with her cousins. After Thanksgiving, I drove her down to Tennessee, where she is going to stay with her dad for six months (we decided to change to a 50-50 custody arrangement, because I was getting kind of overwhelmed with solo-parenting). The plan is that I’ll be going down to Tennessee to visit every other weekend or so. Was very excited to learn that Megabus now runs a Chinatown town bus express to Knoxville! That is going to make my life a lot easier.

December

  • Won free tickets to a really cool event at the National Geographic Society – my favorite singer Neko Case did a showing of her photography.
  • Bought an inexpensive, used piano off Craigslist. Very exciting. I played piano seriously through college, but haven’t had a piano at home in 15 years.
  • Due to peer pressure, finally caved in and joined twitter. One of these days I am going to figure out how to get one of those twitter-widget-thingies up here on the blog.

That’s all the recent news – cheers and happy holidays everyone!

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