Back on the range

Home again from spending five days in Seattle, where I saw eagles nearly every day (a good omen or portent, I’m told), rode a ferry out to Vashon Island, where I spoke with really awesome, smart high school students about writing, Japan, and my second book, gave a reading at University Bookstore, where I met possibly the best bookseller ever, enjoyed the company of old friends at a local writers dinner (hey Johnzo and Victoria, Ted and Marcia!) as well as the company of new friends (hey Matt and Meghan, Les and Diana!), and lead a seven hour long writing workshop at Richard Hugo House.  Wow, seven hours exhausted me.  But I bet it exhausted my students even more.  They, after all, were doing most of the writing that day.

Seattle is a gorgeous, wonderful city, large yet easy to manage, insanely urban yet full of nature reserves, and it seemed the majority of its consumer oriented businesses were largely local, rather than imported from huge elsewhere corporations.  And those huge elsewhere corporations that are there seem to largely be locally grown big businesses.  There’s a different vibe in the air there, a chilled relaxedness, and this was really a nice change to experience.  I look forward to returning when I’m not scheduled to work, so I can climb some mountains, see more islands, more eagles, more owls, and explore the city even further.

Thanks to Les Howle for bringing me out!

Important things

Drove north and east to visit Erie, PA today, where my writing pals Alan DeNiro and Kristin Livdahl were visiting Alan’s parents.  Had a great several hours to talk and catch up with them before having to head back home (and them having to catch a flight back to Minnesota).  But on the way home, I strayed away from the interstate and into the rural back roads that make up the geography of my childhood and adolescence. Which I’ve been writing about lately in a course I’m taking in my MFA program at Chatham University, which focuses on writing about place, nature, and the environment.  Lately I’ve been writing these tiny little lyrical essayistic things–I’m not sure what to call them–that make use of poetic lyricism and imagery and tone to convey more than the controlled logical arguments of a traditional essay, which all center around both the rural environment I grew up in, as well as the post-industrial urban environment I moved into for college.  As I write them, I’m starting to see they may be small word objects that go together as a mosaic collage-like exploration of some of the stranger or anachronistic sites, objects, and experiences that are specific to rural and post-industrial Ohio.

Driving through the place where I spent my formative years, back into Youngstown afterward, provided me with reminders of things I’d forgotten, details and memories evoked from those details, that make me want to explore this type of writing beyond my fiction in the future, regardless of my degree being nearly completed.  I wasn’t sure, to be completely honest, what I would think about a course on Nature and Environmental Writing, but it turns out it provides a rich writing (and reading) experience that I hadn’t expected.  I also hadn’t expected to discover I’d been reading and enjoying a certain amount of that kind of writing for years without knowing that’s what it was.  This past week, for instance, we read a piece by Ursula K. Le Guin that I had read years ago, from her collection, Unlocking the Air, called “The Creatures on My Mind” as a meditative piece on human/non-human life form relationships.  Rereading that, I was also reminded of one of my formative experiences as a writer, reading Le Guin, and how–if I could have my way, and be good enough on top of having my way–I wanted from an early age to be a writer like Ursula Le Guin, who did not do one particular thing, but many different kinds of writing, for children, teens, adults, science fiction and fantasy, magical realism, realism, poetry, nature writing, essays, literary translation.  I admired how she went wherever her material took her, and explored a variety of forms.  So along with being reminded of details and memories from the first twenty years of my life this weekend, I was reminded of my early writerly desire to work in a variety of forms.

It’s been good, lately, to find myself returning to myself, as I must admit that the past two years of being a full time teacher and a half time student has scattered my energies in so many ways that I sometimes lost track of important things.

Dear Reader

There are so many reasons for writing.  For me, I take pleasure in design for the sake of design.  The perfect melding–or even if not perfect, the interesting melding–of various materials into a shape that catches the eye of the mind as the words flare during the process of interpretation and become fireworks, emotional surges, and flashes of insight, in a reader’s imagination as well as my own.

But there are other reasons beyond design itself.  Many reasons.  I was reminded of one last night, after coming home from the latest event I put on for the Ytown Reading Series with my students.  This message was waiting for me in my inbox:

After hearing about the Nebula nomination, I went out and bought your book for my Kindle.

I’m about 60% through it and wanted to tell you I’m really enjoying it. It wasn’t what I expected (the SF ghetto tends to follow certain rules), but I have been very pleasantly surprised.  After I’m done reading it, I’ll probably read it to my wife.  I hope that isn’t a problem.

Normally my wife would get the Audible edition, but it doesn’t look like there’s a audible version for me to buy for her.  So she’ll get me, instead.

I’m always touched to hear from readers who have enjoyed, appreciated, or found something they were looking for, sometimes desperately, in one of my stories or books.  And each time I hear from them, I’m reminded of what else writing is inherently about:  other people.

It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of writing for one’s self.  I do that when I’m fascinated in the process of writing as a reader myself.  Writing as a reader is something I do.  I’m often telling myself stories as I write, experiencing the act of writing as a reader, existing in dual levels of the process at the same time, making and interpreting as I create.  But it’s other people, not just myself, that will hopefully, eventually, read what I’ve made.  And hopefully will find something they’ve wanted or craved or needed, even without knowing it, when they do read what I’ve written.  Those are the kinds of books I love most, to be surprised that I wanted something without realizing what it is I’ve thirsted for.

I try not to be materialistic:  to not seek after the fame and the riches, to not be jealous or envious of those who are rewarded richly in publicity and recognition and money for their writing.  But reading over this reader’s message today, after being reminded of the importance of connecting with others through my work, I also realized that it’s hard to connect without my writing being somehow recognized, as the Nebula nomination lead him to seek out my work, a book he would never have heard of if not for the award.  I’ve recently found bloggers and Twitterers talking about my book’s nomination as well.  Some had already read it, and exclaimed giddily how happy they were that the book had been nominated for the award.  Others confess to the book having eluded their awareness, and after reading it were surprised that it had been so overlooked or unnoticed.

I don’t want to desire recognition or to be known, mainly because I don’t want to be beholden to desire.  But I do understand now more than ever that recognitions like the Nebula nomination are how those other people, readers who may be waiting for my words and don’t know that my books even exist, discover my stories and books.

I’m looking forward to discovering more of my readers in the future as well, the people I don’t know exist, who don’t know that I exist yet either. I hope someday that we can be brought together in that space where words fire and flare.

Looking up

There is a bird in the tree outside my window, singing the same two notes over and over, and I’m beginning to see green appear in patches as the snow melts.

On Twitter, I can practice Japanese in small bites, which keeps me fresh.  Letter writing, at this point, takes too much out of me.  So, Japanese friends, if you are on Twitter, we can tweet in Japanese.  It’s the perfect way for me to keep my Japanese while I’m too busy with teaching and taking classes and book writing to write long letters.

I wrote a story for a new Young Adult anthology that is being edited by Holly Black of Spiderwick fame, and Ellen Kushner of Swordspoint fame, eventually to be released by Random House.  The anthology is called Welcome to Bordertown, and is based on the 80s and 90s series set in that world that the amazing artist and writer and editor Terri Windling invented.  The story is called “We Do Not Come In Peace” which involves an act of terror/revolution by a group of angry folks and a case of vengeful blackmail.  I can’t wait to read the rest of the stories from the other contributors.

Life is good.  Back to work and writing.

Thank you

Still glowing with excitement to have had my book nominated for the Nebula Award this year, I’ve been thinking back to when I first started to be serious about writing.  I guess the nomination has put me into a bit of a mood to think about where I started as well as where I am in my writing life.  I can still remember exchanging letters with the writer Mary Rosenblum, who actually wrote me back when I sent her a fan letter, and encouraged me with my writing.  And going to a week long writing workshop in Cleveland one summer, when I was nineteen, as a decision to put myself into a situation that I didn’t feel like I could get so easily back home in Youngstown:  into the company of other people who are all in love with doing this thing, making stories up and telling them to other people, and trying to make them as well as they can.  I met Karen Joy Fowler there, and James Patrick Kelly, who asked me how a farm boy from Ohio decided he wanted to be a writer, and I said even I didn’t really know how it happened, it was just with me since I can remember, an urgent desire to tell stories, to live in my imagination for a part of every day of my life, and a love of language and the way it can be shaped into so many different forms and voices.   He told me he thought I could do this, and I’m pretty sure I looked at him like he must have something wrong with him.  Who would think that about me? I wondered.  Sometimes I still do.

It was Jim and Karen and then Jonathan Lethem, who I met the following summer at the same workshop, who encouraged me to apply to a six week long writing workshop for speculative fiction writers called Clarion.  I can remember trying to make excuses not to apply, because Clarion had such an amazing reputation, and I didn’t think I could possibly be the sort of writer who they would find to be worthy of being there.  Jim continued to politely remind me over the course of the next year, in e-mails, to apply.  Eventually, at the last minute, I did.  And was accepted.   And when I spent those six weeks in the company of writers doing nothing but writing and critiquing each others work, and talking about our favorite authors and their work, I really just knew it was where I wanted to be ever after.  If I could.

I started publishing short stories afterward, first in the little but mighty zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which Gavin Grant and Kelly Link were just then starting up and it was already building a following of excited readers.  Soon after that, my first professionally published story was in the online magazine, Strange Horizons.  Terri Windling selected it to be included in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and then Scott Westerfeld selected a story of mine for the Nerve issue of speculative fiction.  It was a very exciting time in my life, and in many ways this nomination for the Nebula Award has made me feel that same kind of excitement I had when I was first introduced and accepted into a community of writers and began to publish.  It’s reminded me once again how fortunate I am to be a part of the speculative fiction community, which has nurtured and helped me not only to grow as a writer over the years but as a person.  It’s become a part of my life, even if, as one of my early spec fic writing mentors told me, “You don’t really do this in a way that most people will be expecting, but that’s also a good thing.”  He was referring to the kinds of stories I write and the way that I tell them, but I was welcomed to the party all the same.  That kind of generosity is one of the most amazing features of this particular writing community.

So it’s been a wild ride, and I hope for it to be able to continue for as long as possible, and I’m pleased as can be that my little novel-in-stories is on that list with some of those Big Idea heavy hitters that have garnered well-earned praise in the past year since they’ve appeared.  It feels, in a way, like a milestone, and I’m honored to be among them, and all of the writers of SFWA, who have made the second part of my life a writing life, and one that has taken me places I might not have gone had I not met and been befriended by such awesome folks as these.

An end, a beginning

I’ve been coming up for air, over and over, for the past few weeks.  It’s been nice to sequester myself away from the rest of the world (okay, except for Facebook, which seems to be the only online social hangout that I will venture into these days, mainly because I don’t feel like it will consume me in quite the same way as writing, say, a blog post).  It’s been nice to get some writing done.  One short story for a YA anthology, and some novel revisions.  I’ll be working on those for quite some time, I think.  And still haven’t actually finished the book, which will probably not occur until I’m finished completing coursework for my MFA degree at Chatham University.  Which will be done this summer.  I’ve enjoyed the courses I’ve taken and the professors and writers and poets with whom I’ve worked over the past year and a half, but I’m also looking forward to having all of my writing time back to devote to the book in a concentrated way (which is the way a book, at least for me, needs to be written).  I’m going to keep progressing at a snail’s pace until I can burst free of teaching responsibilities at the end of spring, and then hopefully I will eventually find myself at the end of a book by end of summer.  Whenever it does occur, it will be a happy day for me.

Over winter break, I’ve given myself some time to be unproductive (mainly Christmas week), to enjoy being around friends and family, and not to worry about something that needs to be done.  Pretty soon, I’ll be back to fretting anyway, so I figured, here, take a week to not fret about anything at all.  It’s been nice not fretting.  I could get used to that.

And here we are at the turn of the year again, the new staring down the old.  I used to get sort of down about the turn of the year, but this year I’m trying to gear myself up to take it on, kick-boxer style.  The past couple of years have been exhausting for me in a number of ways, but 2010 promises at least a little bit of relief, so I’m being grateful in advance about that.

I’m also thinking about resolutions, which I used to think were kind of silly.  It seems so easy to say on New Year’s I’m going to do something-something, and then not follow through.  I think that’s probably what happens for a lot of people.  But resolutions are only as good as the will you provide to make them happen, and I intend to make a couple of resolutions for 2010 that I plan to keep.  It’s good, I think, to give ourselves permission to start something new, or to start something over, to provide ourselves with a blank slate every now and then, to not get caught up in past failures or disappointments.  So I’m using the new year as a marker for earnest changes, and instead of this sounding silly or random as it has in the past, it’s providing me with a bit of hope and motivation at the moment.  I’ll take those two things wherever I can get them.

As for blogging, anyone who is reading this knows I’m not much of a blogger anymore.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  On one hand, I miss it.  On the other, I don’t.  I don’t find myself reading many blogs very much any longer either.  Whenever I do, I have the same reaction that I often do when I check back in with the television:  Oh, it’s still the same stuff.  (With television, this provides a more surreal response due to the amount of years that have gone by with me not being a regular TV watcher: Wow, it’s really still the same stuff it was ten years ago!).  In terms of blogging, though, I think I might return to it more regularly when, again, I’m finished with my degree and have a bit more time to write things that aren’t assignments.

For now, though, I leave you with this farewell to 2009 greeting.  Everyone needs a little ABBA, right?  See you on the flipside.

When we are like Anne

“Despite everything, I believe people are good at heart.”

I’m so glad Anne Frank could believe this.  It’s a testament to her own goodness.  It is not a testament to human nature itself, though.  It tells us more about Anne than it does about ourselves.

I don’t believe it.  I don’t attribute my disbelief to my own goodness, but to what I have seen of humanity, including what was going on around Anne, after the fact, and would like to say, You know what?  People are still very eager to do away with other people who are not like them.

Anne, you are a beautiful star.

But people? In general?  They are not.

When we are exceptional, when we see those unlike us as ourselves, despite our differences, THEN we are as beautiful as Anne.

When we are unable to do that?  We are ugly, inhumane, and disturbing.

I speak about this in relationship to the writing of fiction.  Is it worthwhile to speak of that which is good about us?

It is.

But there is a stronger push against, a resistance, to writers who speak about our ugliness, that which is disgusting in human nature.  And the more we resist it, the more I wish to represent our ugliness.

It should not be forgotten.

It should be the thing about which we are most uncomfortable.

It should be the thing we talk about more than anything.

Until we have done away with it.

Then, let us speak of our goodness, as Anne would.  But when our goodness has been won, an earned virtue.

Okay, we can speak  of our goodness, which we would not want to lose.

But not at the expense of acknowledging that which comprises our darkness.

Otherwise, we are living within an ideal, what we would like to think about ourselves, not about reality.

And even when we write fantasy, we should be speaking to reality.  The reality of the story.

Otherwise, we are making ourselves feel good about ourselves without reason.

Earn it.

That’s all.

Earn it.

Being Ill

I hate being ill.  When I am, my body feels like a foreign country.  A foreign country that’s been taken over by a hostile imperial army.  My head feels like my feet, as if I use it to move myself around from place to place.  I sigh a lot, and linger on bad memories.  I am reduced to feeling like a child, powerless and confused.  And all this just from a low fever and aching muscles and bones.

Obviously, I am ill today.  And complaining from my bed.

I was at a book launch party last night.  My friend Rochelle’s father recently published his own father’s journals that he kept as a young lawyer in Youngstown during the Great Depression.  It is in fact called The Great Depression: A Diary, by Benjamin Roth.  The book has received a lot of attention in places like the New York Times and the Washington Post, etc.  It’s a timely book, and I’m looking forward to reading through the eyes of someone who was alive during that period of our history.  The party was fun:  good food, good wine, good conversations.  I came home and went to bed well-fed and slightly giddy.

Then woke this morning and felt only slightly hesitant to get out of bed.  I tried to sleep a bit more and finally did, and then woke later in the morning so that I could do an interview over the phone with a lovely English journalist who will be podcasting said interview on the BBC on Tuesday, I believe.  It was about the new volume of Interfictions.  I was a bit scattered.  By then,  I was starting to realize that the fogginess was not outside my window but in my head, and that the minor aches that had kept me in bed for an extended sleep were getting worse.  I don’t think it’s the swine flu, as it feels minor compared to the symptoms people have described with that.  I’m drinking lots of fluids and vitamins and eating a bit, though I don’t feel like it.  Mostly, though, I felt like Bridget Jones after that interview.  Silently self-deprecatory.  Let’s hope after editing, an illusion of being coherent will be achieved.  Otherwise, I imagine legions of people in the UK will wonder how I manage to get from point A to point B in my daily life.

Haven’t managed to be able to concentrate on other work now either.  Instead, surfing the internet for entertaining bits and pieces to see me through the day.  If you’ve got anything good to watch/read/listen to while ailing, please send links!  I have a feeling that, unless this is a quiet sort of 24 hour thing, I will be needing them for the next day or two.

Otherwise, a busy week ahead of me.  Illness is also untimely.  There should be federal regulations on this sort of thing.

Summer Stock

It is now August, and I’m at the tail end of what has been a very busy summer.  I managed to move forward a bit with the novel, wrote two short stories, and an essay, and also took two classes toward my MFA degree and will be taking a third one beginning at the end of next week.   I sold one of the stories, and am still tinkering with the other, but have high hopes for it.  It’s a much weirder story than I’ve written in a long time, and so I’m still sort of interested and intrigued by it, because it’s a different sort of weird than I tend to write, hence my own interest in it.  And then I was invited to read at Thurber House, and will be reading at the residency period at Chatham in Pittsburgh this month, too.  Also, like a cherry on top, One for Sorrow was optioned to be made into a film by the director Carter Smith, who won the Sundance Film Festival’s short film category in 2006 with “Bug Crush” (You can watch it by clicking here).  He went on to make his first feature film with The Ruins, based on the horror novel of the same name, and seems to be about to make a film based on the novel, Come Closer, by Sara Gran (loved that book).  He’s also optioned Troll: A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo (also loved it), so I feel like his option on One for Sorrow makes a lot of sense, considering the sensibility of his other selections.  There’s never a guarantee that an option on a film will eventually become a reality, but I would be absolutely crazy thrilled if this does go forth some day.

Aside from these literary movements, household renovations and restorations are afoot: a new front porch to match the original (the foundation beneath the porch/patio was eroding due to some factors the original builders, 80 years ago, hadn’t thought of) and plans for a restoration of the bathroom to something along the lines of its 1930s design, much of which was there, just totally screwed up by previous owners who had absolutely no idea what they were doing to beautiful old decor.  Front garden was gorgeous all summer, though the back gardens still need to be redone.  Everyone says that when you own a house, there is always something coming up that needs to be done.  And they are correct.  I wish I were fabulously wealthy, so I could just get it all done and be finished with it for a while, rather than this plodding one-project-at-a-time pace.

Back to Pitt next Friday for a residency period.  Looking forward to being in the city again, though I probably won’t have as much time to explore it as I did during early July when I was there.  The residency schedule looks like it will be keeping me busy for most of the time.  I will make sure to still get out and eat Ethiopian, Indian, (good) Japanese, and Thai as much as possible, though.  I could be made easily happy as a lark, as they say, if someone here in Ytown opened up one of each of those and I no longer had to cook them all myself.  Food options are the source of my happiness.

Even though all of August is still before me, it feels like summer, free time, is over now.  Ah, well.  It was a good run while I was able to run freely.  Next year, it should be even a bit more freer.  Till then, onwards and upwards.