Nature and Nurture

I think people sometimes take for granted the kind of environment they grow up in, and how it plays a part in shaping who they become. Of course we all know that’s a given, that we’re influenced by our environment, but I myself can sometimes get caught up in what-might-have-beens. Usually when people get caught up in what-might-have-beens, they’re unhappy, and that’s not the case with me. I’m actually feeling really good these days, which wasn’t always the case in the past. I’m, well, pretty happy. So when I say I get caught up in what-might-have-beens, it’s mostly in an sense of analytic curiosity.

Recently I was looking at job sites, seeing what’s out there for work in other cities, as well as my own, just to see. Maybe I’m strange, but I find it interesting to see what sort of means for people to make their livings are open in the country these days, and also where those openings are, and to see where the two things match up with type of work and type of region. In Youngstown, there’s not a lot of work, though this is slowly changing. We’ve had decent job growth in the past two years, and really any job growth here is better than it had been for the past three decades. I tried looking up writing jobs, and jobs that utilize foreign languages, and education related jobs, I tried looking up editorial or proof-reading positions, etc. Things I can do. These sorts of jobs aren’t really around this place where I grew up, and yet it’s the sort of work to which I naturally gravitated, even as a kid, working with words and learning. So without lots of positions of employment for the things I could do and wanted to do in life, in my region of the country, I started to wonder if there had been opportunities to use my skills in other ways, if I had grown up in a region that did have a variety of opportunities for me, would I have thrown myself into writing stories and novels the way I did from an early age. Could I have, looking at it from my perspective on the past now, been distracted by having some other form of writerly satisfaction?

I ask these questions because in recent days I’ve been looking at that finished copy of my first novel and thinking, how in the heck did I ever write all these pages? And then I think about the second novel I’ve written, too, and the one I’m working on now, and all the short stories I’ve written that would probably fill two collections (if I were to collect all of them, that is, which I wouldn’t–I don’t dislike any in particular, but some are better than others and I’d rather collect the better than the whole) and I think with even more disbelief, What has made it possible for me to do all of this writing? Obviously the environment I grew up in did not nurture or encourage me to choose the very invisible and hard-to-imagine path of a fiction writer.

I think that I fell in love with fiction from a very early age, made-up things, imaginary things, in general, so I like to think that no matter what, even if I were surrounded by lots of employment opportunities that would still give me the pleasure of doing work that engages my natural, favored skills, I would still write fiction. I think I would, simply because it’s the form of writing that makes me happiest. But I have a feeling I might have done less of it if there had been ways for me to use those same skills in a secure job. So in my own case, I took an environment lacking in opportunities and used it to benefit a part of myself that might otherwise have gone somewhat neglected if I’d had plenty of options.

I still worry and wish that my life, my future, felt more secure, but I’m also really glad that the lack of opportunity in my community for the kind of work I love gave me the time and nothing-to-lose perspective that enabled me to spend so much time writing about imaginary people and situations and places, as well as real ones, too.

Of course, I only get this far before I then think maybe I also lack some common sense. Most people who receive an education leave this area, and I have too from time to time, for spells in other states or, in one case, in another country. But I always come back here too. Some people have asked me why, and I can really only say because it’s my home, and the same way I won’t abandon friends or family, I won’t abandon this place either. Not without trying to help make it better so that maybe, in the future, people who grow up here don’t have to leave to have a better life unless they want to. Some people may find how I relate to the world in this particular way a little, well, not sensible. And there may be some truth to that. But you can love a lot of different things and different people in this world, and for me this place, my home, warts and all, is one of the things I love.

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More Happy Things

First:

The finished copy of the book came today!

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Me acting like a grade school boy with his spelling bee award or something to that effect.

And second:

guardian3.jpgThe Endicott Studio’s Journal of the Mythic Arts has its Summer YA issue live now. They’ve got fantastic stories, poetry, art and essays over there, so go take a look. My story “The Guardian of the Egg” is reprinted in the issue. It originally appeared in Salon Fantastique. Now it has artist Greg Spalenka’s work illustrating it, and it’s really fantastic. I love it. The girl with the tree growing out of her head has only been visually represented by one other artist, and that artist doesn’t actually know it. I took inspiration for the story from Leonora Carrington’s painting, “The Giantess” along with the story of Daisy Head Maisy by Dr. Suess. In any case, go take a look at the issue. It has work by Gwenda Bond, Jeffrey Ford, Holly Black, Steve Berman, Terri Windling, Midori Snyder, Will Shetterly and Catherynne Valente, among others. You can’t get a quarterly publication for free that’s better than this one, I think. So take advantage of it.

Lastly, pictures from mine and Tony’s trip to NYC this month are in my Flickr box in the sidebar. We did a lot of sightseeing. Some of the pictures are really nice, thanks to the sights we were seeing. My favorites are the ones at the Cloisters, but I love the memories of the dark piano bar we visited called Marie’s Crisis.

Happy Things

1. One of the things I love lately is that when you do a search on “Christopher Barzak” at Amazon.com, the number two listing is Rufus Wainwright’s new album “Release the Stars”.  This makes me ridiculously happy for some reason that, as Amazon says, customers who have pre-ordered my novel have gone on to buy the new Rufus CD.  Perhaps Rufus and I could tour together.  I could open for him, reading a story or from the book, the way Kelly Link opened for the Magnetic Fields a couple of years ago, if I remember correctly.  Rufus, can you hear me?!?  My contact info is in the sidebar.

2. I recently had the chance to spend some time with Scott Russell Sanders at Cleveland State University’s Imagination Writing Workshop.  Scott has been a writer who I’ve admired for years.  I still teach his essay “The Men We Carry in Our Minds” every semester in my composition courses.  He was the nicest guy in the world, which I’d imagined he would be from his essays and stories, which really made me happy.  He signed my copy of The Paradise of Bombs, and gave me good advice about the next stage of my writing career, and I gave him an advanced review copy of One for Sorrow, and signed it for him.  It was really one of the greatest experiences, that, to be able to give a book I wrote to a writer I’ve admired for years.  Scott has a ton of essays you can read online from links on his website, but “Defending Our Common Wealth” is one of my personal favorites.  Read it, then go buy a bunch of his books, or at least read his other that you can find online for free.

3.  The Imagination Writing Workshop at Cleveland State was just awesome.  I think I learned a lot as a teacher there, and hope I was able to teach something to the students as well.

4.  Planning the book launch party for One for Sorrow is underway, and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.  Brooke and I gave a bunch of advance review copies to local artists, who have been writing me to say how much they love it, and they’re making things to display in the art gallery of the Oakland Center for the Arts, where the launch will be held.  Also, Robert Dennick is going to perform a song called “Dancing”, by the Italian singer Elisa, which he heard while reading the novel and felt that somehow it was one of those songs that, if the book were to be made into a movie, should definitely be in the soundtrack.  I can’t wait to hear it.  BJ O’Malley, too, who I wrote about the other day, fierce alt country singer from Youngstown, said she was going to work on a song for the book too.  I’m psyched.  The date is set for September 1st, beginning at 7PM, so come and celebrate and have some wine and food and hear songs and look at art and hear me read from the book, too, of course.  The book will be there to be purchased too, and I’ll be more than happy (seriously you can’t imagine how absurdly happy I will be) to sign copies.

5.  The head of the English department at YSU recently asked me to teach a fiction workshop this Fall semester.  This, too, makes me ridiculously happy.  I love workshopping stories and talking about writing, so I’m looking forward to an entire semester of getting to do that.

BJ OMalley

BJ OMalley was one of the performers at the Stage last night.  Her songs were amazing.  I’d classify her as Alt Country in the vein of singers like Neko Case.  But there’s a touch of Janis Joplin in her as well, at least there was last night.  Go to her myspace page and listen to her songs, then buy her cd.  You won’t regret it.  I’ve been listening to it over and over all day long.

Surprise

I had the most awesome birthday evening yesterday. I spent most of the day on my own, just bumbling along from one thing to another. Then in the evening, went to the Stage, where I met my parents in the parking lot outside with my friends and took the elevator up to the third floor where all the magic happens. When I got out and walked a few steps into the gallery area, where everyone was gathered, there were balloons and cupcakes and wine all over, and my friend Brooke shouting “Surprise! Happy Birthday!” with a bunch of other people, which, really, really, did surprise me. I hadn’t been expecting it at all, but apparently Brooke and Tony collaborated to put all this together and sneakily got people on board. Everyone sang Happy Birthday to me and it was just really cool. At the beginning of the Stage, Tyler Clark’s kids (cutest ever) sang me Happy Birthday again, to resounding applause, and the evening was off to a good start of family and friends. My mom teared up seeing how many friends had gathered to surprise me. She and my dad didn’t know about the party–they came on a whim. I was glad they got to see the little family I have here in this little city when I’m away from my family in the little town I grew up in forty-five minutes north of here.

Thank you, everyone who came and wished me happy birthday. It was really such a surprise and made my day. Definitely the best birthday I’ve had in a long time. My secret: never had a surprise birthday party before. This probably helped in surprising me to the point of initial confusion and shock at it happening.

And thanks everyone in my family outside of town who sent birthday messages and hugs. I really feel blessed, as they say ( which I usually don’t say), but today it seems particularly appropriate.

Birthday

It’s that time of year again.  Today:  lounging around doing nothing but whatever I want, mostly reading and eating chocolate brownies and then later, going to The Stage, where I’ll give a reading from One for Sorrow, then a martini or two at Imbibe, then dancing!  It’s nice outside.  I may go outside to read actually.

I got back from the Imagination writing workshop last night, which was wonderful.  So many great students and so many great teachers, so many great writers in general, and lots of great talks given about aspects of writing.  There was also a BBQ with great food and great music, too, provided by Brady’s Leap (Youngstown represents!) and I also got to spend some time with the lovely Cat Valente and Dmitri, who were kind enough to put me up for a couple nights.  Thanks again, guys.

More later, about lots of things.  For now, I’m heading outside to see the day.

Hello, Goodbye

Back from New York City, which was wonderful as usual.  So many things seen and done and eaten and heard, etc.  Now I’m doing laundry and getting ready to pack, because starting tomorrow I’ll be in Cleveland for the next three days teaching at the Imagination Writing Workshop.  I attended Imagination when I was 19 and 20 years old, where Karen Fowler and Jonathan Lethem and James Patrick Kelly all worked with me as a little fledgling writer.  It was a great place to begin learning about writing, and led me to the Clarion workshop when I was 21.  It’s really weird and wonderful to be teaching as part of the workshop faculty now, ten years later.  Life is strange and interesting and, yes, really good.

This summer I’ve been incredibly busy.  I feel like I’ve been working as hard as I do when university is in session.  But after this Friday, I’ll be mostly free.  Saturday is my birthday, and also the next Stage at the Oakland Center for the Arts, where I’ll be giving a reading from One for Sorrow.  Afterwards, if you’re around, come out for birthday drinks with a bunch of us to Imbibe, and then dancing at Utopia maybe, if the mood hits us.  It will probably hit us.  It will probably hit me at least, because Saturday will be the beginning of the rest of a summer where all I’ll have to do is prepare for One for Sorrow’s book launch party and get a syllabus ready for my fall classes.  I plan on doing a lot of reading, swimming, sleeping, and worshiping the sun.

Till then, I’ll be in Cleveland, staying with the lovely Catherynne Valente, who’s gracious enough to put me up for my out of town stay.  Perhaps I will be a more regular journal keeper once my stint at Imagination is over, and as the rest of my summer becomes golden and free.

Dear World

I am in New York City vacationing at the moment. So I won’t be around here, and won’t be quick to respond via email, for the next week (and for several days thereafter, as I’m going to be going from NYC to Cleveland to teach at the Imagination Writing Workship at Cleveland State University till the 20th). More later. Till then, read this awesome review at Bookslut about Salon Fantastique. This is what the reviewer had to say about my story:

After your emotions are more than a bit spent by France, readers may then come across Christopher Barzak’s thoroughly modern tale of a girl, a tree, and a pledge that leads her and her brother deep into the woods. “The Guardian of the Egg” made me most obviously think immediately of Daisy Head Maisy but that isn’t a bad thing, as it is a total flip on what Dr. Seuss did with his “girl with a plant in her head” story; in fact it’s really quite interesting to juxtapose the two. Barzak must know that he is playing with a bit of a classic here and yet he remains serious with his story of environmental courage and dedication. It might be all about a girl with a flower in her head (at least at first) but in the end you won’t be laughing at Hester. Rather, you will thinking more about how Barzak could have found such a compelling character from a premise that seems to insist on silliness above all else.

Stay cool. I’m trying, but it’s ridiculously hot here in the city.

Summer Festival of the Arts

This weekend was Youngstown’s Summer Festival of the Arts. (Pictures in my flickr, just click on the sidebar pics to see them all). It was held on YSU’s campus. I hadn’t been to the festival in years. Last year I’d been at Readercon in Boston when it was held, and missed it. I was glad to be home to see it this summer. It’s grown so much since the last time I’d attended in 2004. There were artists from all over the states, so many vendors, tons of great food from various ethnic communities in Youngstown, and lots of music, dramatic skits and so on. My mom drove out and visited the new apartment beforehand, then we went down and spent the afternoon at the festival eating haluski and pierogis, seeing old friends and buying stuff (mostly Marcie Applegate’s jewelry, which my mom loves).

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It was good to see such a huge crowd of people, and all the really beautiful things the artisans had made to sell. After my mom left, I drove back to the festival to hang out with my friends Brooke and Rob for a little longer. Brooke bought us all Hawaiian Ices and we walked around talking about the upcoming season of plays and musicals for the Oakland Center for the Arts, and my upcoming book launch party for One for Sorrow, which will be at the Oakland at the end of August, and how really nice it is to see the arts scene

coming back to life in Youngstown. Rob’s tongue turned blue from his ice. People felt the need to comment on this. Brooke wore a really big hat Rob had made for a drag queen benefit show for the Oakland, and people kept stopping to ask her which artist was making the hats. Come to the next Stage at the Oakland, which is on July 21st, my birthday, and maybe Rob will have the hat with him. Hmm, maybe you could commission him to make one for you, if tall drag queen hats that make Audrey Hepburn’s hats look

understated is the style you’re looking for. It’s my birthday, but I’ll be there. Hope to see those of you nearby people there, too. Afterwards I’m thinking birthday martinis at Imbibe. Come buy me one! 🙂