writing

2015: all of the things

Here’s a confession: I feel a little weird about linking to pieces that I publish outside of this blog.  I feel somehow like I’m teasing you, pretending that there’s a new Goodnight Already post when really I’m just sending you somewhere else to read something that I wrote for another blog. It feels like bad hostessing, like I’m inviting you over for dinner and then revealing that, actually, we’re going out. (For the record, it doesn’t bother me at all when other bloggers do this. It’s just a personal hangup.) So I’ve saved my clips to share in one end-of-the-year roundup. Only it’s a day late. Here’s everything I published last year:

The New York Times Motherlode

Teaching Children to Love Bees, Not Fear Them

The Washington Post On Parenting

Reclaiming Our Neighborhood Roads

We’re Not Numb; We’re Desperate

Brevity

The Myth of the Real Deal

Writing is the Antidote (to publishing in the digital age)

Cactus Heart

I’ve got an essay, “If I Could Have Two Minutes of Your Attention” in e-issue #13

Brain, Child

Making Peace with the Life I Didn’t Choose

I’m Not Sorry for Yelling

Dear Kindergarten Teacher

What a Father Is, and Isn’t

Explaining Gay Marriage to the Boy with Two Moms

What a Summer Should Be

My Bikini Body

Terrible Twos and Life Out of Balance

That Impossible R: On Speech Delays and Self-Confidence

When We See Our Kids for Who They Really Are

Happy New Year!

2015 image credit: http://exit977.org/2015/12/best-of-2015-you/

The Value of a Reader (and a few other things I’ve learned from blogging)

Goodnight Already had it’s first anniversary last January. I published my 100th post in June. I kept meaning to mark these small milestones, but they came and went quietly while I continued to write posts about rats and forest fires and birthdays. So I’m pausing now finally to reflect on what the last twenty months of blogging has offered me.

1: Numeric Feedback

I spent two years in the early aughts earning an MFA in Creative Writing. Those were good years. I got to immerse myself in the creative process, write new stories every month, and get immediate feedback on those stories from a community of peers. The feedback came in the form of written notes and long discussions about what was and wasn’t working.

Blogging doesn’t offer that exactly, but it does offer something else of value: data. The number of views, likes and shares I get on any given post is often as instructive as any workshop letter ever was. The numbers don’t tell me where my typos are, or where the story lags, or if my characters are interesting. But they do tell me if anyone’s reading, if they connected with the work enough to pass it on to someone else, and if they stayed long enough to click around and read other posts.

I’ve learned to appreciate these numbers for the objective truth they offer. They aren’t too generous or tactful. They also don’t judge. They don’t tell me that a post was poorly written, that it was too self-indulgent or too sappy. They simply tell me: people were curious about this, or moved by this, or else they tell me: they were not.

2: Process

When I started blogging, my goal was to post at least once a week. I assumed I could just carve out an hour, sit down and write a post, edit it once, and hit publish.

A few of my posts have gone that way, but most of them haven’t. Instead something happened that’s either annoying or magic, depending on how I look at it: a process took over. It demanded things of me. I started to move through my life with an eye out for possible posts. What was I worried about this week? What was I learning? Sketches of these posts took shape in my brain every day as I walked from my car to the office, or as I cooked dinner. Once I sat down to write them, they came out scrawled as half-formed paragraphs that needed active shaping and several visits of revision. I couldn’t sit down once and press publish. I had to return to them, learn from them, refine them at least a little.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust the process. I’m excited, not scared, when my first draft is a chaotic mess, when I can’t tell where something is going, or when a draft takes an unexpected turn. After dozens of posts, my body seems to know the rhythm of this thing. Like going for a long run, it’s work, but it’s pleasant—mostly—and it helps me feel expansive in my body and my life.

3: Practice in Letting Go

A related point: blogging has taught me to let go of my work, to make the distinction between the best I can do and good enough for now. If I manage to publish the book that I’m working on, I hope that I will have the patience to make to see it through countless revisions, to send it into the world not because I’ve grown impatient with it but because I’ve reached the limit of my skills.

But blogging has helped me learn that it’s okay to aim a bit lower than that in the service of experimentation, of getting things down and letting them go. Most weeks when I put up a post, some part of me considers what I could do with it if I spent another two weeks refining it. And then I shrug and move on because blogging should move in real time, and life won’t always wait for my revisions.

4: Understanding the Value of a Reader

This is, by a long stretch the most important thing that blogging has taught me: no one—not even my best friends, not even my mother—owes me their readership. The world is full of words and diversions. If I want you to read I’ve got to earn it.

Sometimes keeping a blog feels like keeping a home–the kind of home where people drop by because they were in the neighborhood, and they’re hoping you might have coffee on hand. When I was a teenager I had one friend whose house we always went to. In my gang of friends, we had a number of places to choose from, but we didn’t rotate. We always wound up at this one house. This friend had a comfortable kitchen and parents who didn’t mind having us around but who stayed out of our way. The refrigerator was full and sometimes there was a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Sometimes I think that’s how I want my blog to feel: like a place that’s comfortable and there for you when you need it. Sit down. Eat a cookie. Eat five.

Anyhow, that’s really the point of all of this. Thank you for reading. Thanks for checking in once in a while, or subscribing via email, or telling me when I run into you at the grocery store that you read my last post. Having readers makes my day. You are the gas in my engine, the butter in my mashed potatoes, the honey in my hive.

image credit: Message in a Bottle, Suzanne Nilsson, cc by-sa 2.0  https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomastern/12407730413

When Your Pen Takes Over Your New Year’s Resolution

I asked myself the question: What’s the most important thing that I can focus on this year?, and I thought that I already knew the answer. I thought that my New Year’s Resolution would look like a pared-down version of my daily to-do list:

Write every day.

Exercise more.

But I was writing with a pen and paper, which is a little dangerous because sometimes my hand takes control of the prompt, and ignores what my brain has been planning to say all along, and instead of the sentence “I need to find time to write, if not every day, then as much as possible,” my hand wrote:

The most important thing I can do is to experience joy in my body, and bear witness to joy when people close to me experience it.

Shit. Why did my hand write that? I thought that writing every day was a challenging priority, but making room for JOY in my body and my life? That might require me to become a different person, one who can write joy in capital letters without wincing. One who can relax for for more than ten minutes without listing my to-do list in my head, without feeling like my body is tightening around me.

At the moment, it feels kind of like standing in the middle of a forest with no trail, only a compass and a destination. And I don’t really know how to use a compass. But I may know enough to orient myself. I know enough to start.

I’ll start, when I remember, by taking breaths, by imagining my lungs, my belly, my capillaries opening and making room for for this somewhat foreign and suspicious feeling.

I’ll start, when I remember, by slowing down and searching for whatever small joy might be found in the task I’m doing. The feeling of my fingers stretching across the keyboard, the one perfect sentence in the paper I’m grading, the moment halfway through a class I’m teaching when I notice (sometimes) that things are going well.

This sounds like work to me.

I’ll start, when I remember, by engaging more deeply with Stump and his world, by letting him run through the house in his diaper, by mirroring his happy dance when his brother comes home or when I offer him a piece of chocolate.

I’ll start, when I remember, by saying Yes instead of Later to Smoke’s bids for more time and attention. Yes, let’s open your science kit Now, and Yes, you can pour all of the colored sugar on top of the cookies.

I’ll start, when I remember, by holding the word between my fingers and coming to know it. Such a small word for something so sweeping and grand, (joy, joy, joy).

boys

This is my Dream: No Parenting After 8pm

Several years before I had children, I attended a panel discussion that featured five successful authors. I remember next to nothing about the main event, but I do remember that when the moderator asked for questions from the audience, someone spoke up. She asked:

For those of you who are parents, how do you find the time to be creative?

Four of the five panelists were parents, and their answers were surprisingly similar. They woke up early. By early, I mean four in the morning, or five. But the most striking response came from poet Frances McCue who also woke up early, but added, simply: “I don’t parent before nine am.” This got a laugh of course, but she meant it. Her daughter was nine years old at the time, old enough to get herself dressed and pour her own cereal. If she wanted something at 8:45, she was reminded of the policy.

I believe there’s a reason I’ve been remembering that for the last ten years.

Dre

Currently, waking up early and enjoying time to myself isn’t an option. These days, Stump sleeps relatively well between 8:30 pm and 5 am, but between 5 and 7, he insists on sharing the bed with me. If I get up, he gets up.

Smoke is demanding on the other end of things. Lately he stays up past nine most nights, in part because it’s summer and light outside until ten, and in part because his bedtimes are still elaborate affairs. We can’t simply read him a book and kiss him on the cheek. He wants to read a little, and talk a lot, and read a little more. Then he wants one of his moms to lie with him until he falls asleep. We grant him this because it is the only hour where he doesn’t have to share our attention with his wild and willful little brother.

HarHar

It’s no wonder then that I stay up late most nights. It’s often 10 pm before I catch a moment to myself, and the moment is too precious to sleep through.

This summer I visited a friend with one child, a baby who goes to sleep before seven each night. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to have a quiet house at an hour where it was conceivable that I still might have some energy. I decided that would feel sane. I decided that was something to strive for.

And I will; I will strive for that. It won’t happen next week or next month, and I don’t think that seven is our hour. But I’m imagining the day when Stump is just a little older, when I can read both of my boys a book or two in bed together, then say goodnight and leave them to keep each other company. I will turn out the light and close the door, claim two glorious hours to myself and still wind up in bed at ten.

Please. I’m telling myself that this can happen. Allow me to dream this, okay?

Feeling Like a Tick on a Dog: AWP 14

When I learned that the AWP conference, “the largest literary conference in North America”, would be held this year in Seattle, only sixty-two miles from my home, I decided on the spot that I would attend. Immediately, I began fantasizing about how great my AWP experience would be. I would leave both of my sons at home with my partner and sleep uninterrupted in clean sheets for two nights (my first nights away from my one-year-old son); I would be rejuvenated and inspired by the conference offerings; I would reconnect with old writer friends and make new ones; in the remaining hours, I would write diligently and productively.  This vision reveals how very little I understand the realities of a) my own life and b) what it means to gather over twelve thousand writers in a single place.

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My fantasy began to collapse when, two weeks before the conference itself, my partner learned that she would need to travel for work at the end of February. But I had already registered and was determined to make good on my dream. My mother had been wanting to visit her grandsons, and so we agreed that she’d fly out in time for the conference and we’d all stay in the hotel. Since managing two young children in the city is a daunting task, we encouraged my sister to come along as well. The day before the conference started my mother came down with a massive cold; one member of my tag-team was down. Instead of writing into the wee hours and sleeping blissfully alone in white sheets, I shared a bed with my kids and listened to two grown women alternately snore, cough, and mumble in their sleep.

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Over the next few days, as I rode the escalator countless times up and down the six floors of the Washington State Convention Center, the title of David Foster Wallace’s classic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” played itself over and over in my mind.  The throngs of writers startled me: people with sweaters and asymmetrical haircuts, people with black-rimmed glasses and jeans, people with shaved heads and silver rings. I never realized how much I dressed like a writer until I found myself in the company of thousands of them. I never realized how utterly normal I am until I was placed in a crowd of my own kind.

The conference itself, from what I can tell, was beautifully organized. I attended six panels, and each one featured multiple authors who had, it seemed, painstakingly prepared their remarks to offer unexpected insights. I enjoyed each individual session, and yet by Friday, I realized that whatever I was gleaning from these panels could not compete with the angst I was feeling.

Typically, when I’ve been a part of a small writing class or workshop, I’ve left each meeting with new ideas, inspired by the talent of other writers and wanting to be my best. I’ve felt like some essential organ—a kidney or a lung—to an important body. But strangely, AWP was having the opposite effect on me. If anything, AWP made me want to quit writing. It was a fleeting feeling but a distinct one.

At the first session I attended, Sherman Alexie referred to meeting his editor for the first time at a cocktail party at some Chateau, and then he mused on the word “chateau”, remarking to the audience: “See, these are the kinds of things you get to say once you’ve been published.” The crowd erupted in laughter, as they did on cue for every one of his jokes, and I sat there feeling less like an essential organ and more like a tick on a dog.

And that is why an hour after coming back from AWP, I can tell you I don’t plan to go again. I won’t say never. But if I do, I’ll pack the scaled-down versions of my hopes and expectations. And, god help me, I will spread out on a hotel bed and sleep through the night alone.

Image Credits: Hotel Bed by John Cooke; Escalator by Jeffery Simpson