Trees

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Does pain still count if you don’t express it? If it exists only in the hidden places, in the fetid muddle at the bottom of your mind or the pinkening pressure of your eyelids, carved into nonessential bits of you that rub at the raw side of your clothes, does it exist at all? Does it matter? What matters is that hungry child on the other side of the globe. What matters is the mob, the milk, the rain cloud, the trigger. Survival in its crudest form. What right does a feeling have to exist at all and why can’t you beat the fucker null with comparative logic: you are here, safe, rich, sheltered; you are not there. What trick of the human soul makes you bleat when felled, like a sentient tree, to make a sound only you will hear in any case. Why do you lie there on the forest floor, wooden arms reaching heavenward as if you have a right to add anything but nourishment to the soil? You should be standing! Get your roots together and make a nest for the sparrows.

You have it good. Why do you need to be heard?

Photo by Russell James

Photo by Russell James

Goons

9780307477477I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel in stories about an aging record executive and the young woman who works as his assistant. I hesitate to read books that have collected as many awards as this one has, because I always feel I’ve failed somehow if I don’t like them. But no fear this time. I loved the wry-edged ennui, the leaping structure, the warmth and complexity of the characters—and the language. Gorgeous language.

After I’d finished, I rated it on Goodreads and browsed through to see what everyone else thought. So many one-star reviews, which leave me baffled. I understand we all have differing opinions. We each come to a novel with a unique and personal set of expectations. But one star? One star to me means the book is unreadable. Fifty Shades of silly. I don’t understand a reader screaming Garbage! at a novel that, whatever else it might be, is clearly not garbage.

There’s a big question here, related to the psychology of internet behavior and the unsettling things it reveals about us. Honestly, I don’t have the energy for that one—it’s 5am for god’s sake—though you’re welcome to bat it around. I only wonder what sort of coping mechanisms you have developed.

How do you deal with hostile forms of criticism? Do you read reviews of your work?

Galley

Two things happened last week: my galleys arrived, and I was invited to sign them at MPIBA next month in Denver.

First of all, holy shit, the book looks great. All laid out with pretty shards of broken glass at the chapter headings, the pages wrapped in their slick little galley cover with the marketing deets on the back. Amazing, all of this. I can’t get over it. Now I see why people have pages of thank yous at the end of their books: it’s what you feel like doing when you see it all come together.

Today I wrote this snippet for some of the marketing materials we’ll be using at the show:

“Do I know you?”

It’s a throwaway line, something we say when faced with a stranger who seems just familiar enough to make us pause and look again. But it can be a tricky question. Knowing takes many forms, from the passing recognition of a stranger, to deepest carnal knowledge, to the shadowy, sometimes unpleasant awareness of self. We all want to know. We watch, we listen. We form the most intimate connections in pursuit of the desire to see and be seen. But what if we make a mistake? What if we only think we know?

This is the question at the heart of Alice Close Your Eyes. I wanted to see what would happen in a story where every character misunderstands every other in some fundamental way. I wanted that fact to taint some aspect of a remembered crime and send the victim’s plot for revenge tragically sideways. As the characters strain to see each other clearly, I wanted their vision warped and obscured by their own misguided apprehensions. But most important to me was the urgency of the question behind it all. The plea, the obsession, most poignant and persistent of all human longings: Do I know you?

What is the question at the heart of your story?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Debt

ryderw22Tuesday morning at the cafe. My manuscript is marked throughout with notes saying {more here} in all the places where the shovel hit caliche. The {more here}s represent gaps in the dialogue, failed attempts at description or character reaction—places where I couldn’t think of a single damn thing to say. I’m always aware when I add a {more here} that I’ll owe myself the words at some point. Those little flags aren’t going to delete themselves.

So here we are. Seventy-five {more here}s, and me with my coffee, thinking ah, pickles. Now what’ll I do.

What do you owe yourself?

Wolf

It’s 2:24 a.m. Are you asleep? Did you flip the pillow, settle your cheek, bliss out to the sound of your heartbeat in the down? Does your back hurt? Is your temple damp with tears? Are you fighting, fucking, necking, coming, sleep-jamming to Mr. Manning’s radio while the street lights wash your PJs white and red? Will anybody love you? Will you die before the dawn? Is it Mardi Gras in dreamland, all foil beads and thongs? Is a black hole forming in the space behind the morning, sucking your joy away. Will you wake up muddled, gritty and befuddled under that lumbering silence, that shuddering stillness, that unholy oneness that makes your molars ache. Turn your head; your eyeballs drag along behind and ponderously alight: curtain, blanket, closet, door . . . Your house is crackers and sugar-glass, one small bad wolf with a squirt-gun could melt the whole thing down. It’s 2:26 a.m., are you sleeping now?

How’s your sleep?

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Photo by Aneta Bartos

Couch

It’s football season and my Broncos are stomping. (We got your rematch, Baltimore.) My son isn’t into football, so he’s curled up on the couch with his e-reader. It’s hard to keep up with what he’s reading. The kid is voracious, and is one of those people who will carry on with a book until the bitter end, whether it has zombies in it or not. He reads as much as I do, and has taken to creeping up with his e-reader and a sheepish look on his face like he knows he’s getting carried away. Hey, as long as it’s not another video game.

I’m two-for-three with my kids as far as reading goes. My boys are heavy consumers (and my oldest sent me a text yesterday from the Seattle Public Library, asking what he should get; that little note warms my heart on so many levels). My daughter reads some, but she doesn’t yearn for books the way the boys do. The way I do. I consider her a work in progress.

(Oh my gosh, premature touchdown celebration. Seriously, 59, I hope you don’t finish all your big moves that way.)

Are the young people in your life into books? What do they like to read?

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Blue Balls

I saw a movie today in which nothing happened. No build-up, no payoff, no shootout or car chase or first kiss or courtroom drama. No mystery, solved or lingering, no childhood romance or complicated family life, no dilemmas relating to career or parenting or religion or old-school morality. No glorious technicolor dreamcoat. No unintended leaks of laughter. No CGI. Or soulful interactions, or nuanced flicks of an eyelash. No blow jobs in the alley. No torch singer on a piano. No afterlife, or altered life, or simple life, or coma. Except in the audience, I am sorry to say.

Nothing. Happened.

Have you read any books like that?

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Wank

The gimmicks are starting to pile up. In addition to the candy dish and the coffee shops, the fine-point Pilot PreciseGrip pen and crappy spiral notebook, dog walks and Pinterest board and the down pillow under my special ass, I have decided I need a soundtrack. It’s not a recent decision, by the way—I always create a soundtrack, it’s part of my Process, dude—but it’s safe to say I’ve reached the obsessive point in putting this one together. I have mixed and burned seven CDs in the past two weeks. I carry the latest incarnation everywhere and play the songs almost every time I step away from the page, as if a few hours of intermittent thought about my child, say, or the state of the Middle East might cause a fatal distraction that will keep me from finishing my book. It’s true that the music does help, but as with the other gimmicks, its main value is in girding me against the terrifying prospect that I’m in this all on my own.

I wonder why it is that creative work seems so untrustworthy. Faced with a mountain of data entry and two months left to complete it, I wouldn’t feel the impulse to burn sage or paint henna on my writing hand. I’d get down and do it. I have always tried to approach writing with a worker-bee mentality, but the fear is ever-present and must be beaten down daily (with a crappy spiral notebook and seven CDs). My superstitions offer relief from the anxiety of coming at writing empty-handed.

Of course, the maddening reality is that I am alone in this endeavor. I am. You are. Nothing beyond your cranium can save you. You can Scrivener the motherfucker, or wear your Rushdie T-shirt, or scribble in the margins, or stand on a wide gray beach with a stick in your hand, you can toke your plot or change your font, jerk off or drive off or crank up the Copper Blue and send a smoke signal heavenward to summon the god of writing—dear god, please save me from the terrible whiteness—but at some point you have to face the fact that the fucker is all in your brain.

Wank on that, baby.

How brave are you?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Guest Post – Catherine McNamara

You may remember that I interviewed Catherine McNamara last year to talk about The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy—a sexy little cannolo of a novel, about which I carried on to anyone who would listen. I’m so pleased to have her back again to talk about her new short story collection. And sex. You’ll be shocked to know that we’re talking about sex.

We’re just made that way.

~ Averil

SEX AND THE SHORT STORY

I like sex. I like language. I like stories. It’s very simple and it has always been that way.

But I’m not an erotic writer like Averil. I don’t consider myself very raunchy – well, maybe a little – and yet somehow the sex just seeps in. An English colleague interviewing me in Penzance said, But Catherine, you write about sex with such ease – I could never let that all out!

How embarrassing! And the audience making me feel like an Aussie tart.

And yet. Weren’t we raised on D.H. Lawrence, the great English master of man, woman and nature? Didn’t this writer spend a few good years in Paris absorbing Anais Nin and ‘The Story of O’? And hasn’t she recently fallen in love with James Salter’s work, who brilliant blog reviewer John Self says writes about sex ‘as though he really gives a damn’? -1

I just looked through the titles of my collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ to see if there was just one story that doesn’t mention sex, or where the act of sex does not occur.

Oh dear. There are a few. Well, a couple where it doesn’t even happen (phew!).

What does it mean, Averil? When one constantly has this four-legged monster in the room?

What John Self says about Salter’s ‘pornography’ is that the author writes ‘not primarily of sex, but of living: everything is at a height, fully-realised and rich in colour. The characters enjoy lives of significance and meaning: events, roles, status.’

Okay, that’s where I’d like to put up my hand. Many of my stories deal with displacement, migration, living in another person’s skin, rubbing up against another person’s skin, discomfort, aftermath. Colour, gender; landscape and history. Some of you may have read my blurb over on Betsy’s an age ago: ‘Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a hotel pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife…’

So you see? Just stories. Catherine-rattling-on-stories. But now – because I want Averil to pull out a beautiful photo we can all swoon over – I’m going to give you some Pelt Sex Scenes (I feel like I am leading you into a darkened room, mauve light in the corner; a field at night, a kitchen table..)

Well, if you insist...

Well, if you insist…

‘She was thirsty, the two beers at the hotel had brought it on. Now she was clammy with his liquid and everything felt flawless. She looked at him as he drove, wanting to rub herself harder into his skin once again, wanting to lick his eyelids and use her tongue to feel his teeth. She wanted to chase him, bring him down, feed on the spurting from his neck.’ (Where the Wounded Go)

‘I found Corinne weeping on the boot of my car after a hard night in the city. Mine is a dull area and finding a beautiful sobbing French woman in the night was akin to finding a real fairy at the bottom of the garden. I couldn’t get it out of her, what had happened, whether she’d been gang-raped by punks or her cat had been flattened by a car. Despite being in incredibly bad shape and having an early start the next day, I urged her into the house, made some strong tea and set her upon the couch. As I took my last look at her wilted eyes and pale forehead settling under the emergency duvet, she beckoned me.’ (Young British Man Drowns in Alpine Lake)

‘..this is Stromboli, the love island of Rossellini and Bergman. Reece hasn’t reminded me yet, but I know this is what makes him so heated and distinct. He holds my face inches from his, keening into me. We cradle, we leak on the flowering tiles. The unshuttered windows admit a breeze carrying the scent of rotting figs. Behind the house the volcano spills into the fields.’ (Stromboli)

Thank you for having me Averil! And readers, I have started a secret, lyrical work (title begins with ‘A’) and I am savouring every word.

-2

http://peltandotherstories.blogspot.com

Out on Kindle shortly!

Congratulations, Cat!

Passion Fruit

After an afternoon at the Hut, a plate of fried tofu and two pots of jasmine tea, I have 2,000 words, a big fresh scene, tea stains and sweet-and-sour splotches all over my pages, and three new pornographic doodlings. Tits and ass in the left margin, flaccid dick in the right. Never the twain shall meet.

The waitress brings another pot of tea. She never asks what I’m up to, never hurries me along, always remembers to ask if I want a cupcake before she brings the check. I wonder what her home looks like. Macrame and spider plants, yellow Formica table with three tulip chairs, sunburst clock (of course it works!), a spoon rest made of abalone shells set in acrylic, two Ikea tables and a bunch of glass grapes in a bowl. She’s a beautiful hipster, with a long black braid and a constellation of freckles across her nose. I’ve made a cliche of her, which is less than she deserves. I’m sure she has a pencil skirt in her closet, even if it’s way at the back.

You won’t believe what I just wrote, I want to tell her. A big big scene, an earthshaker oh baby oh boy, and you wouldn’t believe what Julian just said to Celia. He wants her bad, you see, he’s pushing hard. He can’t stop shaking her tree. But from my booth by the door I am god, and I say he won’t even wet the tip. Isn’t that a thought, freckle-face? While you’ve been filling my teapot and serving drunken love noodles to the nurses at table four, and setting out the chopsticks, and wiping up the spills and offering passion-fruit cupcakes all around—imagine, you walked right by them time and again. You say you didn’t hear a thing? Didn’t catch the vibe? Really, not at all. Yes, I do look calm. I know, an island of calm, yes, I’ve been told. But my pages runneth over.

Do you write in public? Ever feel like you’re putting one over?

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Hatter’s Hat

I am at the cafe with my stack of pages. I’ve decided that what my book needs is more. It needs riffs, and run-ons, and conversation, and twinkle lights. More threesomes. An excess of lovers. Amplification, illumination. More, more, more.

Two people take a table nearby. A lady is on her cell: This is Lauren—Lauren—and I need to reach the home office urgently. Please can you put me through? I need some advice on this deal, we’ve got to run a background check. . . .

I wish I had a home office. I need advice. I hang up crying after talking to my husband and try to assure myself it’s hormonal. Is it hormonal, home office? Will we ever bridge the distance or is this what my life has become, what I’ve let it become: one square mile and a palm tree, water all around. Or is this a pool of tears? Did I fall into the rabbit hole when I put my pen to the page? Am I falling still, end over end, my sky-blue skirt around my ears, soil on my mary janes? If I eat that mushroom, will I shrink or will I grow? Should I try to steal the hookah? Should I wear the Hatter’s hat? We need to run a background check, home office, who are we dealing with here. This is Averil—Averil. The realest part of me is the backside of a clock that runs the wrong way round.

What would you ask the home office?

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Photo by Annie Liebovitz

Purple Syrup

I’m out for a walk around the neighborhood, and have come upon two women. They must be sisters, or mother and daughter, because they have the same high-hipped legginess, the same flat slope from neck to skull, and they carry their arms with the palms turned straight back, swinging in perfect synchrony. Because they are older I have overtaken them, and as I pass we exchange pleasantries which evolve into conversation. The beat of my stride is out of time, three for their two, but today I’m lonely and dogged. I like their humor. They complain that they get lost sometimes in their own hometown, but it’s still at the funny stage in which they are easily reoriented and can shake their heads and laugh. I’m losing it, one lady says. But I haven’t lost it yet.

At a bend in the road, we part ways. The blacktop is wet again after a long dry spell, and the air’s gone creamy and cool. Everywhere I go, I see small creatures: squirrels and rabbits, hummingbirds, blue jays, seagulls, crows. Today, a fawn. I feel like Snow White.

My son has made a friend whose father sent over a slice of blackberry pie, made with the berries the boys and I picked down by the lake. The plate is warm underneath, and I eat the pie standing up, wandering through the house from window to window before alighting on the back step to run my finger through the smears of purple syrup. A rabbit hops to the edge of the grass and my dog tears off after him. They disappear into the juniper bushes. A few seconds later she comes prancing back, looking for praise. You missed him, though, I tell her. But that’s more than fine with both of us. I fondle her silky ear and give her a scratch under the chin.

I don’t remember quite how I got here, but tonight it feels like home.

Any random kindnesses, given or received, that you would like to share?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Suck It

Yesterday I finished my second draft of the new book. Moving right along to draft three, and what I hope is my final pass before someone else takes a look under the hood and reminds me of all the shit I left out.

I’ve hit a rhythm, and it goes like this: I started out with a candy dish on my desk, filled with milk chocolate caramels, each candy representing 1,000 words of manuscript I still have yet to write. Every time I pass the thousand word mark, I take a chocolate out of the dish and put it on my desk. (Or eat it immediately, if it’s 4pm and has taken me the whole day move the needle.) The candy does not budge from that dish until the marker passes another thousand, and I don’t stop writing for the day until I have had my chocolate treat. It’s like a vitamin. One a day, every day.

I get that this is hokey. A writer should write, and word counts are a silly sort of thing to reward—as if it’s only the number of words that matters, not the quality of the writing or the coherence of the story. But I also like watching the candy dish empty, and I like that my system allows for some fluctuation: some days I might finish only a few hundred words, but if they take me from 58,883 to 59,265 . . . bingo! I still get my treat. Other days I may pile up two or three chocolates, in which case I save the extras for days when writing even a hundred words is like pounding sand up my ass. Fuck it. I suck on my chocolate and go for a drive and don’t feel remotely guilty about that day’s suckishness.

This morning I counted thirteen chocolate caramels left, not including the one in my mouth. That’s a lot of empty foil wrappers in the garbage.

Any writing gimmicks you’d like to share? Pornographic reward systems, morning threats into the mirror, incense to summon the muse?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Flags

I drove to Grays Harbor again yesterday. On the way, I listened to my CD of writing inspiration for Blackbird and thought about how my book is shaking down. I’ve made a huge leap forward over the past couple of weeks. Something has come unstuck, and the problems that plagued me earlier don’t seem so difficult now. I just have to keep writing.

Sometimes I lose sight of the obvious. I’ve spent so much time worrying over the voice for this book (nothing brings out my insecurities like trying to pin down a voice), and experimenting with tense, point of view and structure, that for a long while I was missing the point. I forgot I was telling a story. Two weeks ago I took an old index card and flipped it over and wrote myself a note which I’ve clipped to my work-lamp: JUST TELL THE STORY. WHAT HAPPENED? If the index card were bigger, it might also say: Averil, stop looking for gimmicks and pretty words because you’re afraid of what you’re writing. Be brave, Chicken Little. Tell the fucking story.*

 What’s taped/clipped/pinned to your workspace?

*Thank you again, CJ, for the mantra.

White Space

My friend Josey wrote a lovely post today about the stacks of books beside her bed and how they reflect her self-image. She says:

There was a time when I made excuses about the way in which I buy books, one after another, no discipline, no waiting until I’ve finished one before buying another one or two or three or four. Whether or not I read them right away (or ever) is no longer a consideration. I cherish books. They comfort me in the same way looking at art can give someone a sense of themselves. Books reflect back to me something about myself, something I consider sacred. Something that has been with me since the beginning of me. I do not remember a time when there wasn’t a book on my nightstand.

I like this sense of connectedness, especially to the idea of a book we have yet to read. The story is so pure at that stage, so pristine in its tidy jacket—not unlike the beginning stages of the book before it’s written, existing only in the writer’s mind. The story is better at this point than it ever will be on paper. Every writer knows this is true, but before today I never stopped to think that it could be the same for the reader.

For me, the books I want to buy reflect as much about my personality as the ones I’ve read a dozen times. Because I write thrillers, I want to love them as a reader; I imagine myself gobbling them up as fast as they hit the shelves, knowing all the characters’ names and back stories, all their psychic wounds. I dream of a collection of memoir from far-flung points with exotic names and historical significance. I try hard to love the classics, the brainy books, the fat literary hardbacks with distinguished names on the covers and authors who show up on national TV. I want to love erotica. And cozy mysteries. And science fiction. And romance.

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Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

And I do love them, that’s the thing. Whether or not I choose those books for myself, I love that they exist, that they’re part of our culture, that other people have devoured them. I feel as connected to the books I haven’t read as the ones that I adore.

But for the most part, the nightstand collection I imagine for myself is not the one I’ve actually accumulated. The books I’m drawn to have a certain look about them: they’re slim and dark, trade paper usually, and when you look through the pages you’ll see a fair amount of negative space. They almost all involve deep character studies of precocious children. (I’ve only just realized that. Children are the common denominator.) They are usually light on references to the establishment; the characters exist on the periphery, and they tend to start and resolve their problems amongst themselves. The communities are often poor. The settings are rural. And people get badly hurt, but they fight like hell going down.

I don’t read widely, or with any particular emphasis on the kinds of books I like to write. My tastes are narrower than I wish they were, more limited in scope than they probably should be. I get passionately attached to certain books and reread them obsessively, which means that I don’t get through as many as I’d like to. But that’s okay. There are no shoulds in reading that truly influence me. There are only books, wonderful books, in all their prim (or raggedy) jackets, waiting for me to crack them open.

What does your bedside book collection say about you?

The Fog

Today I’m wandering. Out to the lake at first, where the fog had settled torn and silent over the water, and the only sounds were my own footsteps and the jingle of my little dog’s tags as she slipped through the forest, her plumy tail up like a flag to lead the way. I was frightened off the path by a stranger with a bigger dog, and ripped my pants on a blackberry bush trying to find my way back. Afterward I sat in my sweaty clothes, sipping hot coffee and scrolling through my pages to no particular end. It depresses me to see how dark my story has become; you are what you write, and there I am. That’s my brain at work, spinning this psychosexual mind fuck with everyone hurting each other and themselves, everyone dead at the end. And the end is the beginning, which means something today that it didn’t yesterday.

I wrote my quota of pages and wandered into the kitchen with Bruce on a loop, where I made a complicated stew that’s simmering now on the stove. I should be lonely here in the empty house. I want to be lonely. But more than that, I want to be alone—with my ugly thoughts and my nasty mind, and this cast of characters who just can’t seem to get off unless they’re fucking each other over in the process.

I lost my protagonist today. She wandered over to the dark side and I can’t even bring myself to mount a rescue.

What do you hate about your writing?

Five

I’ve been on a job-application binge the last two weeks. I’d love to say that employers are banging down my door, but sadly this is not the case. I wonder if it’s my answer to the where-do-you-see-yourself-in-five-years question, which has come up repeatedly and never fails to annoy me. What’s the right answer to that one, anyway? I hope to be alive, let’s say, still clothed and with a roof over my head. Still married, still writing, still free to walk the streets. Clearly the answer to an employer should fall along the lines of: I hope to be moving up the ranks! Acquiring new skills! Happily and slavishly devoted to the man, hoo-ah!

Look, I get it, and I can bullshit with the best of them. But what about my real work? What about writing? Where do I go from here?

I can’t decide whether it’s helpful to think long-term about writing. I tend to be a goal-oriented person and a real worker bee, but even knowing that about myself and retracing my steps as a writer doesn’t seem to indicate any clear direction for my future. I’ve considered starting a series with my next book. I have some rough ideas about what that might look like and it isn’t unappealing. But writing a series scares me a little. It’s such a long-term commitment, and what if the first one bombs? Or worse, what if I got bored with the characters? Boredom is death for a writer. Imagine slogging through book three of a trilogy when you were sick of the world you’d made by the end of book one.

Maybe it would be better to stick to single titles. I could write a sexed-up new adult book, maybe, or try to make like Gillian Flynn and hit the lottery with book three by sticking to my tried-and-true. Psychological suspense is the bomb-diggity as far as I’m concerned; I could write this stuff for a long time before it got old. But what if my thrillers aren’t that good, what if they wither on the vine? Would I bail? Try a new genre? Throw myself at my agent and demand that he hand over a bestselling plot?

I have no idea. All I can see at the moment is the manuscript under my nose, begging me to finish the rewrite.

What about you? Where do you imagine you’ll be in five years, writing or otherwise?

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Photo by Aneta Bartos

Moonrise

After a week of whirlwind family time, day trips and laughter, the house is nearly empty again. I am at my desk, watching the moon rise through the tips of the pine trees and into the pale gray sky. I’ve held all my children and my husband and my niece and my sister, and although they’ve scattered again, I am soothed by the reminder that I still can call them mine.

A writer’s craving for solitude is so innate and profound that at times I think we forget the point of our self-imposed isolation: human connection. We come to rely on the expression of written words instead of verbal ones, on x’s and o’s instead of real hugs and big sloppy kisses. Written words are safer, less impulsive. If your tendency like mine is to be annoyingly demonstrative with your affections, writing is a way to dampen the impulse and keep your distance from the people who might feel smothered by such undistilled endearments. It’s a form of emotional camouflage. It’s a way to reach out without having to look into another person’s face to see whether he accepts or rejects what you have to offer. Maybe what that all adds up to is nothing more nor less than cowardice, for all that we think we’re being brave.3a43194afc19378bcd70f221c23ebd87

My first husband used to tell me that I was too passionate. (I thought of him yesterday while watching a movie called Downloading Nancy (god, what a moronic title), about a woman whose life is so bleak and haunted that she hires a guy to kill her during sex. Anyway, there’s this scene where Nancy and her obtuse husband are at a company party, and she begs him to dance until finally he agrees, and she’s dancing at last and smiling and twirling under the corrugated ceiling strung with crepe paper streamers and dispirited balloons . . . and when she opens her eyes, the husband has wandered off and left her there alone. That scene was my first marriage.) Later boyfriends would disagree, baffled: It’s not possible to be too passionate. But it is, of course it is, and so I’ve spent the past twenty years in a slow withdrawal, unhelped by this new crack-junkie dependence on the written word. Maybe part of me feels that by channeling my passions into writing, I can turn them into something more palatable. Or at least set them a little aside.

But I wonder if it’s a case of being poisoned by the cure; sometimes I feel as emotionally boxed-in by the fix as I was by the original problem. Which is why being with the members of my family who don’t read is good for me. They only know of me what I choose to express, face to face, which forces me to say aloud the things I would normally suppress.

Or not, as is more often the case. I left several things unsaid last week. I tempered my endearments out of habit. Not fatally so, I mean I squeezed the stuffing out of them from time to time and gave them all my glib I-love-yous, but still I’m not sure I got the point across. I’m not sure there’s a way to express a love as big as this; there are only inadequate human attempts to connect—any way we can.

How does writing affect your relationships?

Guest Post by Sherry Stanfa-Stanley

The Woes of Waxing, Not So Poetic

So, as I was on my way to the salon for a leg wax and full Brazilian, I paused at a red light and pondered why exactly on God’s Good Earth I had chosen this particular impending fate.

Waxing, especially of my nether regions, could take this year’s goal of going outside my comfort zone to an entirely new level.

When making my appointment, I was told the hair on my legs should be about the length of a grain of rice. However, during the chaos of my recent move, my legs had been sorely neglected. The hair more closely resembled al dente spaghetti.

But we soon encountered bigger problems. After she’d gotten about a fourth of the way through one leg, my “esthetician,” Rebekah, frowned and said, “Wow, your leg looks like a road map.”

Probably I should have remembered—before I was in the midst of having every hair below my waist ripped from my body—that I have a condition called “dermographism.” This means I have highly sensitive skin that welts up so much under the slightest scratching or pressure that you can literally write on it with just the brush of a fingernail.

I glanced down at my leg. It appeared as if I’d encountered a swarm of giant killer mosquitoes. I winced, but reassured her it wasn’t a problem. My dermographism didn’t generally pose a big problem, and neither did my allergies, thanks to my bi-weekly immunotherapy injections, daily doses of Allegra, and nightly spurts of nasal spray.

The wax, she noted, was primarily made from pine oil. Could this pose any allergy issues? Hmm. I considered this. My host of allergies includes dogs and cats (I only have a total of five in my house), dust, mold, weeds, and grasses.

And most trees.

I shrugged. What the hell. I reassured her I had an EpiPen in my purse, which she could jab into my thigh at the first sign that my throat was swelling shut and cutting off my breathing.

Strangely, this did not put her mind at ease. Yet still we continued. I had a new item to check off my 52/52 list, damn it, and death by wax could be a new experience for both us.

Fortunately, I didn’t die. Not from an allergic reaction nor from the pain. It wasn’t quite as horrific as I imagined. And the waxing of my cupid’s cupboard, which I feared the most, wasn’t even the worst. The most agonizing was the waxing of my shins, where the thin skin is more sensitive. For a single moment in my life, I wished for fatter ankles.

I was dumbfounded by her story about a client who, after many years of waxing, has become so desensitized to the pain that she falls asleep during the procedure. Clearly she is one sick, masochistic woman.

Yet the most painful aspect of the experience was surely the mental anguish. As we finished up my Brazilian process, she said I had a couple options. One was to get on all fours upon the table. The other was to lie on my back and hold both legs in the air—as if positioned for a backward somersault.

It was a lose-lose situation. I flipped a mental coin and chose the latter.

And while I found myself in this most humiliating of positions, she told me the story of a client who drives in from an hour away. This woman told Rebekah she won’t get her hoo-ha waxed locally because she wants to ensure she is never forced to make eye contact on the street with anyone who has viewed her this particular way.

Good point. Rebekah was pleasant and professional, but I hope I never meet up with her in the produce aisle at Kroger.

And after my experience, I still have to wonder: Why would women put themselves through this ordeal, willingly, on a regular basis? Are there any true benefits? Sure, it might make wearing a bikini more aesthetically pleasing. I suppose there may be some more erotic motives, too.

But at this point in my life, neither is a compelling reason.

Surprisingly, this may not end up being the most painful item on my list of the year’s new experiences.

But it could win out as the most uncomfortably embarrassing one. At least by a hair.

Check out more of Sherry’s adventures at The 52/52 Project on Facebook. Next up: a solo camping trip, complete with tent and mosquitoes. Sherry’s a glutton for punishment.

Noted on grocery list: fresh pack of razors

Noted on grocery list: fresh pack of razors.

Crimp

When I was in my twenties, I knew a man who died. He had gone in for cardiac bypass surgery, and when the wound became infected, had to go back again so doctors could drain and clean the wound, and, I guess, figure out what the hell was going on in there that could be causing the septicemia. His wife told me later that as the medical team was moving him back to his room after surgery, he suddenly flat-lined. The usual controlled chaos ensued, during which time someone discovered that his ventilator tube had gotten wedged under his body, cutting off his oxygen. This was remedied, a heartbeat reestablished, and he went on to make a full recovery.

He told us later that during those minutes of cardiac death, he’d had an out-of-body experience. He said he’d hovered over the bed in a fury, thinking, Some damned fool has cut off my air. He could see the crimped tube and knew exactly what had happened, and could repeat word-for-word what the medical staff had said and done while the machine went beeeeeeeeeep.

It was exactly like him to be dead and pissed off about it. The guy was as no-nonsense a cowboy as ever has lived. Soft-spoken, undramatic, with more common sense than anyone I’ve ever met. He was also an atheist, as I was at the time, who made no attempt to interpret his experience or wonder however it could be true. He simply repeated what had happened, and we shook our heads over it and moved on.

But I still think about it sometimes. I don’t believe in an interactive god or a bureaucratic heaven in which certain earthly acts must be performed as an entrance requirement; I’ve never found a religion that could stand up to my curiosity or even truly tempt me to join in. I simply have never seen the point. This man I knew was a kindred spirit. He was not bullshitting me. He had seen his own death reluctantly, was dragged out of his body and unceremoniously plunked back in just as he was starting to look around. When I asked him whether he was afraid by what he’d seen, he seemed surprised, as if fear of death had never occurred to him. No, he said, I was pissed. Goddamn doctors. . .

What stories have you heard from beyond the veil? Have any of them challenged your beliefs?

Photo by Joyce Tenneson

Photo by Joyce Tenneson

P.S. I will be taking a break from the blog for a week or two while my family is in town. Happy days!

Lemur

Alice Close Your Eyes has gone to print. Just galleys at this point, but still, people will soon be reading my story and judging me it. After all these naughty hours in a snug dark corner, it seems that Dad has crashed the party and is reaching for the lights. 521d6ae0ca617327b75d636e5adb85d8

For comfort, I reread one of Betsy’s old posts about how success almost never happens, how the publishing world is sleepy and indifferent, and most books fall right through the cracks without leaving so much as a claw mark on the floorboards. I admit I sometimes wish for that. Failure ensures anonymity, it’s predictable and safe. It’s darkness for a lemur. The center of a school of sardines, a chalk-blue gannet’s egg in a cliffside nest. It’s the palest, weakest, coldest moon no earthly soul longs to inhabit, which therefore makes it home sweet home. I have no more fear of failure than I do my living room sofa.

But I’m not in this alone anymore. For the sake of my book, I have to learn to hope for success, and allow that toxic optimism back into my mind. Recently I was emailing to catch up with an old friend, telling her about my books and whatnot, only to realize after hitting send that I sounded not only foolish and starry-eyed, but even more self-centered than usual. I hate myself for every sanguine word I wrote. I fucking hate to play the rube. Promotion is inherently optimistic, at least it seems so from the outside, and for that reason alone it scares the hell out of me.

How do you manage your psychological quirks when it comes to writing and promoting your work?

Damp

Summer is here. My produce box is all peaches and corn and smooshed-up tomatoes, and where the hell are you? And by that I mean, where’s your work? Last month I sucked, but on Saturday I wrote a lovely paragraph. It had rhythm, originality, it was hip and tight, with an unobnoxious chain of alliteration that appeared of its own accord. I was so happy about my paragraph that I lost a good twenty minutes while I sat and admired it.

Today I am at my window with my face like a hothouse flower pressed to the glass. Even my words are drooping, plopping one by one to the page. My arm has stuck to the paper. My eyebrows are damp. Twin pools have formed over my collarbones. But such is the power of the paragraph that instead of dragging my sweaty kid down to the lake for a dip, I have peeled off my bra and I’m propping my glasses at the bridge of my nose, my slick and shiny nose, and though my nape is a swamp I am standing like Marilyn over a tepid vent because I wrote something that for once does not suck and I’m damned if I’ll leave when I’m on fire.

What’s the last sentence you wrote, and where did you write it?

Photo by Veronique Vial

Photo by Veronique Vial