hello, hi, I don’t know how to do this

I quit my job in July and I no longer know how to write for myself. In my past job, I was working on projects that often had very specific, and opinionated, stakeholders. It was important for me to be able to express their ideas directly, succinctly, and with an appropriate tone on behalf of the company overall. I often wrote for the internal blog and picked my own topics, but even then I was well aware that I was writing to a specific audience with a specific goal, and my voice was mine but only subtly.

In some ways, my job was a six-year long disappearing act. It made my writing sharper and clearer, into something I can wield if needed. But I didn’t do a good job of writing for myself, of exploring my own thoughts and feelings and documenting them, adjusting and refining them, turning them into something more intentional and steady than everyday thoughts and feelings. In my undergrad, I focused on writing and on creative non-fiction in particular. I was at the very least pretty ok, and I was confident in my ability to create, to write essays that, even if they weren’t great, showed promise and a little bit of flair.

Now, in some ways, I’m not even sure if I know how to think for just myself and not on behalf of some other entity, which is…troubling. I’ve often approached writing as a way to excise the thoughts that creep, amorphous and difficult but persistent, where I can’t quite reach them. Sometimes, I’ve found, the only way to figure something out is to get it out, onto the page or the screen or wherever and make it take shape, even if the initial shape is wrong. Until it’s text it’s recursive.

I haven’t been haunted by any preoccupations, though, and I don’t feel as playful, charming, or eloquent as I remember my written self being.  Mostly, I feel like I should create something, and not just consume things, but I don’t know what to make besides food (which I then consume, so, you see how it’s roundabout).

I’m going to graduate school to study public policy this fall, and I intend to spend the majority of my professional life focused on improving health care in the US. I told a friend from college this on the phone a few months ago, and she said something like, “So you’re giving up on writing, huh?” And the answer is both yes and no. Like in my last job, I anticipate that a lot of my writing will be in service of something else–a project, a policy, an objective–and I’ll need to wear different voices for different audiences. But I don’t want to disappear as much as I’ve been disappearing. I don’t want to forget which voice is really mine.

On a practical note, this means I intend to use this blog more. Intentions are fuzzy things, and I’m not making any commitments as to content (books? food? crappy reality tv? notes on Jon’s canon of health care books?) or frequency. But I hope to share more of my thoughts and feelings here, if only to pin them down and claim them as mine.

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2016: A Year in Reading

year-in-reading

The Stars

First thing–guys, I read the whole Tournament of Books shortlist this year except for A Little Life because now is not the time. The two standouts I can’t stop recommending are The Tsar of Love and Techno and The SelloutThe Sellout is funnier and more important, but Tsar made me cry and was also a little funny.

After Tenth of December, I get why people are so over the moon about George Saunders (I am too).

Evicted will break your heart.

Madame Bovary was wonderful. One of the most perfect metaphors I’ve ever read was when Emma’s father looks back at the celebration he’s leaving, recounts his losses, and Flaubert writes: “He felt as sad as an empty house.” The Mothers stands out as an inheritor re: precision of language in metaphor–the figurative language in the book is not flowery, and it’s never too much. I loved all three of the major characters and am excited to read what Bennett writes next.

Swing Time was a delight–the type of book you read slowly, to savor. Smith defines sharp, flawed, and compelling characters, and she though she critiques them, it’s in a way that allows you to both know them and love them.

I wish I could take Lumberjanes back in time and read it at 14.

The Disappointments

The Nest had good pacing but was mostly about rich white people losing their money, but without the charm and humor of Arrested Development. D’Aprix-Sweeney clearly has a lot of talent and, after her book deal for The Nest, a giant financial cushion. I hope she uses both of those things to write something more daring and interesting.

Lots of books I read this year were about adolescent women and twenty-somethings who things mostly happen to, or who are concerned with their bodies. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, The Girls (to a lesser extent, but still had the happening to element). In 2016 I’m really ready to read stories about young women who are actors in their own lives–who want things and make real choices with actions and consequences.

With that aim, you’d think I’d love The Queen of The Night, but the foreshadowing was too aggressive and it didn’t seem to have any heart.

One of my most satisfying Facebook arguments was about J.D. Vance, who I’m increasingly convinced is a charlatan–Sarah Jones took down the book and called him the false prophet of blue America–I won’t repeat her work, but you should read it. Don’t read Hillbilly Elegy. Read Sarah Smarsh and Sarah Jones and Dorothy Allison.

& Others

Jon called Moonglow aggressively middlebrow, and, well, he’s not wrong. The footnotes were neither essential nor especially effective.

Today Will Be Different is fun and should be on your hold list, but it’s not as captivating as Where’d You Go Bernadette.

I hope Jess Walter doesn’t write any more books with struggling writers as major characters (Beautiful Ruins).

 

electric word, life

prince pointing

Many people have Prince stories. These are mine.

12

Two thousand zero zero party over, whoops, out of time.

It’s 1999. 1999 is back on the radio. I think that 1999 was written this year, for this year, and foolishly think it’s kind of dated.

16

It seems like I was busy doing something close to nothing, no different than the day before

I’m coming off of a long contemporary christian music obsession and am unsure about music in general, coltish about top 40, but I like the way Kiss and Little Red Corvette sound on Star 105.5 (the 80s, 90s, and today) even though Little Red Corvette seems kind of dirty. Linnea talks me into buying Prince’s Greatest Hits at Best Buy and we listen to Raspberry Beret as I drive her home.

17

Close your eyes, and let me guide you.

Hollywood Video is still a thing that exists in the world, so when I decide that I want to see Purple Rain for myself, Linnea comes with me. We scour the fluorescent aisles but need help. “We’re trying to find a movie. It’s…not current.”

“What movie?”

“Purple Rain.”

“I like you.”

Purple Rain is not very good from a narrative perspective but I find myself mesmerized by the performances. I do not yet understand that Prince is sexy and when he smiles on his motorcycle with Appolonia behind him I think he looks like a creepy bunny.

18-21

It’s hard for me to say what’s right when all I want to do is wrong.

I become known for liking Prince, even though I still only have his greatest hits and know them incompletely. I’m going through an indie, precious phase with other people who are also going through largely indie, precious phases and I listen to the Prince album only on my own, only in the car, when I need a break from Damien Rice and Andrew Bird.

Sophomore year my dorm floor watches PS I Love You en masse and many young women are aghast at Hillary Swank’s karaoke performance of Gett Off. 23 positions in a one night stand. only call you after if you say I can. “Who sings this song?” someone asks. “Prince, I, uh, believe that it’s Prince.” I say, and blush.

I’m beginning to understand that Prince is sexy, that he’s got more swag than just about anyone alive, and that this confidence combined with his outrageous talent overcomes the things that might inhibit him. I will deny his sexiness several times before graduation. “Do you really think he’s hot?” “No, but I think he thinks he’s hot in a way that’s really interesting.”

22-26

You don’t have to watch Dynasty to have an attiude. 

Between The Very Best of Prince compilation and the Purple Rain album, which I memorize, Prince slowly becomes a beacon in my life. An icon. I love how filthy and ridiculous but still kind of hot Little Red Corvette is with the convoluted car metaphors. I love all the weird asides, lines like “let’s get married, have a baby, we’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy” in Sign O the Times and how Alphabet St sounds half like it should be for children (put the right letters together and make a better day) but also clearly includes Prince wanting to watch his partner masturbate. I respect the subtle feminism of Gett Off (I’ll only call you after if you say I can). 

I love Prince’s style & arrogance, his side-eye, the way he commands any room and any stage. I don’t know very much and I don’t try especially hard to learn because, even now, I don’t find many of his albums immediately accessible. But what I do know I love. Prince joins Twitter and it’s the best day on Twitter. Prince joins Instagram and that’s even better. You don’t have to know everything about a person to love them, to love their work, to champion them.

Five-ish months after Jon and I start dating I’ve determined to tell Jon that I love him, but I don’t know when or how. I’ve checked on the internet and confirmed that five months is an appropriate amount of time, but I’m nervous, even though I know I don’t have to be. Jon and his parents help me move most of my things out of my only solo apartment into the apartment I’ll share with my best friend. I say that I’m tired and am going to take a nap before I finish cleaning. Jon stays with me and we lie down on the berber carpet in my empty bedroom. We start singing Purple Rain, neither of us getting it quite right, but I’m further off-key. I never wanted to be your weekend lover. I only wanted to be some kind of friend. Baby, I could never steal you from another. I turn to him, place my hands on either side of his face. “Hey,” I say, and tell him.

A few months later Prince comes to Chicago and I almost empty the $250 in my emergency fund to go. Almost, this close.

27

People always say nothing come too easy. But when you got it baby, nothing comes too hard. 

I think about this line from Baby, I’m a Star all of the time. What does it mean to be really gifted? What does it mean to be really and truly talented? If you’re going to make art, should it feel hard, or should it feel natural and right, like an extension of yourself? Is it possible–really and truly possible–for joy and work to meet and fuse together in a person’s life, or does only happen for truly incredible artists, who’ve seen and believed in their power and potential since childhood?

What does it mean if it’s too hard to create something?

There’s a bold, self-assuredness to Prince that I admire and long for and have never once felt. Even my proudest–and by proudest I mean acting proud, a sort of umbrella word for cocky and self-important and dismissive–moments have had an underlying tinge of self-doubt. And the worst, meanest parts of acting proud is probably fed by that self-doubt, that manifested impostor syndrome. If you feel like an impostor you also feel the need to act your role and keep anyone else from finding out you’re faking. What a gift, what freedom, to know you’re the shit, both before and when everyone else knows it too.

The most popular episode on the Sass ‘n’ Brass podcast is the episode that’s supposed to be about Ginuwine’s Pony, where I spend all of my airtime trying to convince Dayna that Prince’s songs are better than Pony. I know, now, that Prince has few equals. There is no one else like him now and there likely won’t be again.

April proves to be the cruelest month of 2016 and news reaches Twitter around noon on a Thursday that Prince has died unexpectedly in his home in Minneapolis. I’m not a functional employee for the next day and a half, and the following week remains a question mark. If I could peek behind the veil now and say one thing to Prince, I think I’d say thank you, and that I didn’t know you best but I loved you most among artists. I hope you were right, and the afterworld is filled with never ending happiness, you can always see the sun, day or night.

Capsule Wardrobe: Take One

I’m beginning to realize that I really can’t resist internet fads, so I’m putting together a capsule wardrobe for the spring. I learned about capsule wardrobes through Apartment Therapy, who use Un-fancy as their main source of inspiration. The whole idea behind a capsule wardrobe is you limit your clothes to 37 pieces (+/- a few) for a season and get creative with outfits. It’s minimalism for fashion.

When it comes to clothes, I don’t feel like I have a cohesive style. Many of my t-shirts have tiny, cat-claw shaped holes in them. If my job decided that everyone had to dress like business men and ladies, I’d be in trouble. Not that I necessarily want to dress like a business lady all of (or even some of) the time, but I’d like for my style to feel a little more intentional, a little more grown up or at least a little more cool, while still somehow maintaining that effortless sense that you get from the Un-fancy outfits.

Also, I wanted an excuse to start buying nice things. If you limit your clothes for a season to 37ish pieces, you can spend money on better stuff, right?

So I put together my capsule list for spring, intending for this to take me from March-June –everything with a $ is something I intended to spend money on:

Shoes (9)

  • Western Boots
  • Combat Boots
  • Heel boots
  • Sneakers ($)
  • Strappy sandals
  • Orange heel sandals
  • Nude heels
  • Wedges
  • Oxfords

Bottoms (4)

  • Black jeans
  • Dark jeans
  • Lighter jeans
  • Business pants

Jackets (2)

  • Mustard yellow coat
  • Moto jacket
Tops (18):

  • 3 Basic t-shirts
    • Black and Gray, v-neck and boat
  • 3 Graphic tees ($)
  • Leopard shirt
  • Short-sleeved sweaters
  • 2 blouses (one solid, one print)
  • Black tunic sweater
  • Lightweight sweater ($)
  • Long gray cardigan
  • Blue open cardigan
  • White gauzy-tank
  • 2 blouse-y tanks ($)
  • Lightweight gray hoodie

Dresses (5):

  • Black and white striped dress
  • Orange dress
  • Fancy floral dress
  • Green classic dress
  • Jersey/drapey dress ($)

I spent some time Saturday cleaning up my closet and boxing things up. Never again will that guy from high school see me wearing a North Middle School Sweatshirt at the place where we both work and he makes approximately 2x my salary. March is now halfway over, and I’m ready to implement the capsule wardrobe, but it looks a little different–

Shoes (9)

  • Western Boots
  • Combat Boots
  • Heel boots
  • Sneakers
  • Strappy sandals
  • Orange heel sandals
  • Nude heels
  • Wedges
  • Oxfords

Bottoms (4)

  • Black jeans
  • Dark jeans
  • Lighter jeans
  • Business pants

Jackets (2)

  • Mustard yellow coat
  • Moto jacket

 

Tops (17):

  • Black striped t-shirk
  • Black v-neck t-shirt
  • Boatneck gray legging-t-shirt
  • Boatneck blue & white striped shirt
  • Gray t-shirt
  • Green striped t-shirt
  • Tournament Of Books t-shirt (on the way)
  • Pattern t-shirt
  • White and blue ikat-ish pattern t-shirt
  • Leopard shirt
  • Orange lacy t-shirt
  • Black tunic sweater
  • Lightweight sweater
  • Long gray cardigan
  • Blue open cardigan
  • White gauzy-tank
  • Red and Black checked flannel

Dresses (4):

  • Black and white striped dress
  • Orange dress
  • Fancy floral dress
  • Green classic dress

Bold means it’s new, italics means it’s standing in for this month. Next month, I’ll have one shopping weekend to switch things out and get closer to my original list. Until then, these are my clothes. The only things that aren’t included here that don’t count toward the total are leggings and basic, please-make-sure-people-can’t-see-my-bra tank-tops.

Pics or it didn’t happen:

IMG_20160313_141053171_HDR-COLLAGE

These pieces are mostly understated and a lil preppy, but a few things spice things up and make the ensembles feel edgier–namely, the combat boots, moto jacket, and, to some extent, leopard print boatneck shirt. Dayna helpfully encouraged me to get the leopard print Keds, which were less expensive than the more adorable floral pattern, but probably better for mixing and matching (except with the leopard print shirt, which I will not do). I also added the red flannel zip up shirt because I love it, and it could get cold here again, but it’s on the shortlist for replacement since it is technically mens clothing and one of Jon’s hand-me-downs.

One accessory I’m really thrilled about, but which will absolutely not help me look like a grown up, is this tote bag:

IMG_20160313_144832845

I’ll check in soon with some updates and maybe meandering thoughts about fashion/appearance/all that jazz.

in absentia – dad thoughts on father’s day

I always forget about Father’s day. It creeps up in the middle of June, when inevitably something more personally important is occurring. If I’m in Illinois, I go to my grandparents house and bring my grandfather a birthday/father’s day gift I thought up as I was leaving Wisconsin. Today in Madison, I sent my stepfather a lazy text message and my boyfriend and I looked for a dehumidifier. His parents aren’t doing anything for father’s day, either. His mom is at the cabin by the river and his unsentimental father is at home.

This father’s day marks about three and a half years since I last heard from my dad. It’s an absence I don’t often notice – after all, he wasn’t around much before that. The only time I notice his absence with any sort of dependability is at friends’ weddings, during the father-daughter dance. I cry every time.

Before my mom met John and got remarried, I thought of “dad” as a fillable position. A father figure could be any dude who loved my mom, probably. I was lucky, after my parents’ divorce, because my mom didn’t date around much. John was her first post-husband boyfriend, and they’ve been married for seven (maybe eight?) years now. Serial monogamy at it’s finest. I didn’t have to deal with a revolving carousel of pretend dads. Her second marriage, though, brought into sharp relief that I wasn’t really looking for a substitute dad. John could never be my dad. For better or worse, my dad have certain personality similarities. John and I don’t. I’ve always felt different – removed, more like – from most of my family members. Before my dad left, he was my one kindred spirit. I’m a precise enough personality that those kindred spirits don’t come around often. And, after being married to my dad and having him turn out to be a shitbird, my mom was unlikely to look for someone like him.

What I realized and slowly came to terms with from 16-18 was the fact that I didn’t want any dad, I wanted a non-shitbird version of my dad. I didn’t want my dad no matter what – my love was not unconditional. A shitbird dad would not do. He’d have to demonstrate that he wanted to have a relationship with me on my terms, which weren’t onerous. Mostly, I wanted him to be interested in my life and respect the boundaries I’d placed between us. The anger that persisted through that final phone call in January of 2010 was the natural result of his failure to do that. Now, he’s someone I barely think about. Sometimes, my brother will get a call from one of our family members and be upset. After talking him through, I’ll think about my dad for a few minutes, but not too much longer. I might tell J some stories, but the next day I’ll go on. I always go on. I don’t think of myself as tragic. I fretted about everything for a long time, and was intensely sad, even damaged. But I go on, and I’ve ended up not being as fucked up as I’d earlier assumed I would be.

Sometimes I think about my wedding, and whether or not I’ll invite him, and what that will look like. Who will walk me down the aisle, who will dance with me at the appointed time. I’ve decided that I’ll invite him to the ceremony, but not the reception. There’s a very limited amount of fucking up that you can do during a church service – add in unstructured time and an open bar, and that amount increases exponentially. If he finds that offensive or awkward or whatever, he’s welcome to not come. Allowing my largely absent and neglectful father the opportunity to see his only daughter married is an act of kindness. I’ll be doing it for him, not for me. My mother will walk me down the aisle – she’s the only one that can in any real sense give me away. If a church has a problem with that, I won’t get married there. The dance is the only part I haven’t figured out yet, which is probably one of the reasons it always makes me cry.

The Man Who Loved Children: On Reading What’s Good For You

Spoiler Alert for the first 100 pages of Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children.

For the Year of Women project, I borrowed Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children from J. His recommendation, and a passage on Henny*, the abusive mother in the book, gave me high hopes and expectations for the novel as a whole. I haven’t been disappointed in terms of quality — it’s clearly well-written, well-respected, a modern classic, etc. However, I’m starting to wonder if reading this novel is beneficial for me. It’s a weird thing to think about, and not something that comes naturally. When I mentioned offhand to J that I didn’t know if finishing the novel would be beneficial, he had no idea what I was talking about.

Here’s what I’m not talking about: I don’t think that books, that stories, need to have intentional lessons or morals in order to be beneficial. In fact, I question whether having intentional and discrete lessons is a marker of good literature. I do think, however, that books can stay with you in a way that other forms of media can’t, and that what you consume media-wise affects you in profound, if subconscious ways. For example, I don’t think it’s farfetched to suggest that there’s a correlation between music and movies with narrative frameworks that depend on institutionalized misogyny and institutionalized/subconscious misogyny in real, individual persons. The level of causation between those things might be impossible to discretely identify or pin down, but it’s also impossible to definitely say that the level of causation between those things is zero.

In a similar way, books might sometimes fall into identifiable buckets of “good for me” “bad for me” and “morally ambiguous for me.” Me as a pronoun is important, because what’s bad for me to read at 20 might not be bad for me to read at 40, or bad for someone else to read ever. Identifying which bucket a book falls into probably requires a certain level of soul-searching that I don’t often apply to my reading, and when I do, I apply it after the fact.

For an example of the “good” category: Marilynne Robinson’s novels are like church at its best for me. After reading her books, I feel like I subconsciously know more what the cost of being good looks like, and why it’s still worthwhile to pursue it. I know more about what loving other people and attending to them looks like. I know more about what it means to be human. The novels are beneficial for me in that way, even if I can’t tell you exactly what in them makes me feel like I know more about these things.

Conversely, I would have been better off if I hadn’t read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being until later in life. When I read it, I’d never been in a serious/long-term relationship and couldn’t imagine what that would look like for me. I took the story of Franz and the fat girl who loves him and internalized it. I became convinced that her fate was my fate, and that conviction caused a not insubstantial amount of insecurity and misguided thinking. If I’d read the book even ten years later than I did, I don’t think it would have affected me in the same way.

So now I’m reading The Man Who Loved Children, and in some ways it feels like a 500-page long catalog of a family of awful people being awful to each other. Granted, it’s well written, and the characters are compelling. On the other hand, within the first 100 pages, an ignored and abused 11-year-old Loulou kills a cat because her crazy neighbor tells her to. There’s no indication that Loulou feels hesitation or remorse, aside from a single sentence fifty pages later. And I’m not sure if finishing a book about an awful family being awful to each other and to other people is good for me. It’s not shocking, necessarily, just sort of ambiguously saddening. It’s weighed on me as I’ve read it, and I’m not sure if it’s a weight worth bearing.

*From page 7:

She belonged to this house and it to her. Though she was a prisoner in it, she possessed it. She and it were her marriage. She was indwelling in every board and stone of it: every fold in the curtains had a meaning (perhaps they were so folded to hide a darn or stain); every room was  a phial of revelation to be poured out some feverish night in the secret laboratories of her decisions, full of living cancers of insult, leprosies of disillusion, abscesses of grudge, gangrene of nevermore, quintan fevers of divorce, and all the proliferating miseries, the running sores and thick scabs, for which (and not for its heavenly joys) the flesh of marriage is so heavily veiled and conventually interned.

The Year of Women: October 2012 to October 2013

Several weeks ago I noticed that my reading was too dominated by dudes and the books they write. It’s a noted problem that most of American letters – both past and present – is driven by testosterone. Men, particularly white men, still run the show even though women buy more books and get more MFAs (e.g. write more). And while there’s nothing I can do to change the purchasing habits of the American habits or the publishing habits of the industry, I can change my own habits of attention. Seeing as I consider myself a feminist and progressive thinker, I probably should.

So for this year, no more dudes. Some exceptions: blog posts and one-off articles. No long-form creative non-fiction essays or fiction or poems, unless I know the dude in question personally.

This resolution was complicated when my boyfriend gave me the first thirty issues of McSweeney’s for my birthday. While that’s a fabulous gift and I now feel like the hippest writer/lit-blogger/whatever-I-am-in-Madison, most lit mags don’t have the best track record when it comes to publishing equal numbers of men and women. So I’ll be doing my own VIDA work with McSweeney’s starting at the beginning, with issue 1. Each issue I write about will also include a count of the number of women published, as well as the number of women published with unambiguously female names.

For the more visual, this is my reading list for the next year, subject to some variation:

Shelf 1: Issues 1-30 of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern. Shelf 2: novels and books by women.