blogs & blank pages

IMG_20140403_141950
Once a week, I open up a blank document. I’m going to write a blog. I’m not sure where to begin, but a cup of tea might help. I walk to the kitchen. I fill a pot with water from the sink. I place it on the stove. I turn the knob. After a few moments of clicking and snapping, the coils turn red. Waiting for the water to boil, I clip my toenails. I sweep the clippings up with a broom. I continue, sweeping under tables and desks. I pull dust bunnies from forgotten corners. I push this clump, this collection of clippings, dust, and dirt, into the corner of the kitchen. I make a mental note: buy a dustpan.

By now, the water has boiled for far too long. The tea is too hot to drink. I can’t write a blog unless I have a drinkable cup of tea. I set the cup on the windowsill. The breeze blows a waterfall of steam overboard. Waiting, I check my email. I scroll through social media pages. I fall asleep with eyes still on the screen. I am suddenly seated at some stranger’s wedding. The happy couple is all smiles. I’ve never met them. Wait, how did I get here?

An hour has passed. The tea is cold. The page is still blank.

AWP14

image

image

Fellow book lovers,
I’m currently at the AWP14 conference in Seattle (which is the Association of Writers & Writing Programs for those of you who aren’t familiar with it; I admit I had never heard of AWP up until a month ago). It is overwhelming to the point of tears. A striking contrast to the solitary days of writing and reading. And truly remarkable. Rows and rows and rows of books; of literary journals and magazines; of writers, editors, and publishers literally rubbing shoulders as they squeeze by another booth.

If you’re here, you know what I’m talking about (and you should come visit me at the NHIA MFA booth B17). If you’re not here, get here. Or put it on your calendar for 2015.

Best, e.v.

in solitude, in portland

IMG_20140206_132006

Portland is an introvert’s paradise. Nothing but rain and street corner cafes with piping hot coffee where you splay a used hardcover copy of Zadie Smith out on the table beside a bar of Woodblock Chocolate and a Field Notes pencil. You take up knitting to keep your hands busy while you read. You wake up early to write to the sound of car tires spinning, screeching on the street outside, drivers wholly unprepared for three days of slowly falling snow flakes. You feel both cliche and old, staying in and knitting in an armchair, never watching the news, lacking the faintest idea of what’s going on in the world and perfectly content yet mildly unsettled with that fact. When the woman at the library tells you about an article on Slate about the snow in Atlanta you ask “it snowed in Atlanta?”

The black hood of a rain jacket induces tunnel vision on the way home from the post office, like a horse wearing blinders being led through water. You feel the newness and the unknown of the city but it doesn’t swallow you up, doesn’t bother you like it did in Brooklyn, where you had to know it to be in it; in Portland, you just have to be. Maybe it’s the city or maybe it’s that you’re older.

IMG_20140208_174323

Mostly, I’m at a loss of what to say. No lack of things to say, but where to begin, how to begin to say them. I once wrote that the writing life was one of intense solitude. I stand by that, but I now realize that generalization was more specific than I wanted to admit. Even amongst others, I am extremely solitary.

Portland is another step towards that, rather than away. In Portland, I can be anonymous; the luxury of a city, a new city. It’s not so much about starting over as it is about continuing, a deepening of what’s already begun.
IMG_20140203_140252

on travel / nomads

photography by Chelsea Batten

c.battenportsmouth-nh

A few weeks ago, through the magical web of social media, I met up with Chelsea Batten for an afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Chelsea is the embodiment of what I value. With few possessions packed in the trunk of her car, she roams around North America as she pleases. When she’s not writing full-time for a magazine, she conducts her own interviews on the side for a project she calls The Connoisseurs. In essence, when Chelsea’s not writing for work, she’s writing to write. This is one of the main reasons I admire her.

Another is that she has lived nomadically for a year now. (I wrote “I’m all about that” in my notebook the day after we met.) And after talking to her, I realized we’re cut from the same cloth. I can’t help but be nomadic, and neither can she. We talked about how we’re both essentially homeless; drifting from one house to another, not paying rent in any official capacity. We talked about how people react when they hear that Chelsea essentially lives out of her car, and about how difficult it is for me to answer the seemingly simple question, “where do you live?”

I’ve resided in New Hampshire since April of 2012, but since August I have been jumping from place to place each night. From houses in the Seacoast region of NH to Cambridge, MA to Portland, ME. That’s what I mean when I say I can’t help but be nomadic; even when I’m settled, I’m on the move. Although living out of a duffel bag in spare bedrooms filled with the leftover possessions of past residents has drawbacks, I would not trade the freedom and ability to move from place to place for anything.

Talking to Chelsea restored the faith I’d lost in my ability and intentions regarding travel. I felt lost, wayward, but now I see this is a powerful and radical choice in a lifestyle that ultimately satisfies me more than a permanent address and a dining room set. I realized that lost, wayward feeling was derived from an unconscious adoption of common cultural and societal misconceptions about traveling and travelers. Contrary to popular belief, we travelers are not lazy, or ungrounded, or escaping reality. Our priorities and values are not skewed just because we’re not fully satisfied with a 12-month lease or a mortgage. I know plenty of people who derive satisfaction from saving for their first home, decorating a new apartment, and working forty hours a week in a cubicle. I’m just not one of those people.

But it bears mentioning that I was born into a white, middle-class American household, endowed with the trappings of privilege, and given opportunities (namely access to a good education and the ability to travel) that I realize are not available to everyone. I also recognize that the socio-economic conditions I was born into lends itself to my nomadic lifestyle.

photo by Chelsea Batten

I flew straight back to Lhasa, Tibet the day after my college graduation to continue studying the language. Yet something about returning to Lhasa with an undergraduate degree under my belt felt wrong. I couldn’t figure out why, exactly, but the situation in Lhasa was tense, so I chalked it up to the heavily-militarized region and returned to the United States. What I didn’t see then—that I clearly realize now—was how I caved under societal expectations, believing that an upstanding US-citizen with a Bachelor’s degree should have a full-time salaried job, instead of aimlessly traveling around the world. I bought into the assumption without knowing I was being sold, returned to the US, and moved to Brooklyn to work like hell. And it was hell.

Even now, I hide my insatiable wanderlust and nomadic spirit under my MFA-in-progress, because that is a more acceptable answer to “what do you do?” than, “I live out of one duffel bag, jump around from house to house and city to city, and work as a freelance writer and editor.”

And to those who brush it off with, “it’s just a phase,” here’s my ten-year plan, characterized not by “things,” but by places and experiences:

  • Bhutan: teach; study Dzongkha, Buddhism, the ethnic cleansing during the 1990s, and the current tourism model.
  • Sikkim: study Tibetan, reach a relative point of fluency
  • Tawang, Arunchal Pradesh, India: visit the historically Tibetan territory and disputed region
  • Burma: history and recent reforms
  • Cambodia: Angkor Wat; genocide of the 1970s; travel overland to Vietnam
  • Vietnam: railroad from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and Halong Bay by boat
  • New Zealand: one year working holiday
  • Italy: study Italian
  • France: study French

Now that you’ve heard my side of the story, go read Chelsea’s account of our meeting in October, and tell me (in the comment section below): what are your views on travel, wanderlust, and ten-year plans?
Read more: on travel / wanderlust

NaNoWriMo or GrammoWriMo?

desk:wall

Last year, I participated in and won NaNoWriMo, completing a 50,000 word manuscript in 30 days. It pushed my boundaries and challenged me to accomplish a feat I only imagined looming in the somewhat distant future. “Write a book” has been on my bucket list since I could hold a pen, and NaNoWriMo reaffirmed my identity as a writer. Now, another year has passed, November is days away, and I’m not sure I’m ready to dive in to NaNoWriMo. Then again, I didn’t sign up until October 31st last year, so I still have a week to make up my mind.

Should you do NaNoWriMo? I say “why not?” Give it the ol’ college try! It is a great experience for seasoned writers and budding novelists alike. But if the idea of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is too daunting (and you’d be crazy to say it isn’t at least a little bit daunting), look into GrammoWriMo. Organized by Grammarly, GrammoWriMo is organizing the largest group of authors to ever collaborate on a novel. But hurry, the deadline to signup is October 25th!

Read more:
NaNoWriMo day two: word vomit
NaNoWriMo: the bittersweet, not quite end

the english club

It all happened before the time of the burning monks. I escaped to the roof at night with a cigarette hidden up my sleeve—quietly climbed the stairs, pushed the large metal door open and then shut to sit on the stone steps with my back against it. It didn’t matter how quietly I climbed, the door inevitably emitted a prolonged sigh. Under the cover of darkness, balancing the cigarette between my lips, I finally inhaled a gratifying sense of solitude.

The roof was the one place I could feel truly alone, where I didn’t feel like someone was watching, or listening in, or recording keystrokes. The paranoia would subside enough for me to think reasonably, as I drank in the deep purple mountains and the effervescent stars that attempted to puncture the light pollution poisoning the night. I was surrounded by the mountains, enveloped.

The whirr of electric currents ran through cables that snaked down the side of the dormitory building; the sound of solar water heaters in the night, occasionally dripping, but mostly frozen; cars and their inexperienced drivers racing up and down Jiangsu Lu; the laughter of students; the bone chilling chants of the military performing drills; the bass heartbeat of a song; the shrieking of speakers. I felt the sounds of the city under my skin, they drifted up from below and melted together like a contemporary symphony.

Blinking lights flickered at the far end of the roof: indicators of electricity or internet or surveillance or something. The new six-story, five-star St. Regis Lhasa Resort loomed a few blocks away, brightly lit, despite the fact that construction was not yet complete. Day and night, people worked on the grounds. Sparks flew from welding irons like miniature fireworks; earlier I had watched them as my classmates and I marched wearily back from a karaoke bar in the middle of the night. Bits of fire and light flew like blood spurting from the skeleton of the unfinished building.

I held the stump of the extinguished cigarette between frozen fingers and thought about returning to the karaoke after-party on the first floor. I ran the scene through my head: I’d wearily sit with my back up against the wall, curl my legs up into my chest, sip a cup of hot water and watch while everyone continued to get shitfaced—this group of misfits, sitting cross-legged on pillows and rugs and drinking cheap Chinese wine like we were in some sick, twisted version of a Kerouac novel.

In the corner, timid Martina tried to become a fly on the wall, situated beside plain Amy. Obviously American, Amy donned a baggy t-shirt and unflattering jeans, the type to wear a baseball cap with the ponytail shooting through the hole above the adjustable strap in the back.

There were four other Americans: Natasha, a young academic blonde who couldn’t retain eye contact and had a tendency to throw out off-color remarks regarding the most intimate details of her sex life that no one had asked about; Samantha, who looked like the cliché art school dropout, usually hanging around the front door with a cigarette in hand; and John and Kati, the inseparable vegan couple from New York City who seemed to live in their own little bubble within our bubble, in our world but not of it.

Near the doorway sat Eric, a frail Parisian linguistics student and the self-appointed translator, unofficial tour guide, and point person for any and all transactions, especially when it came to ordering meals. Then, Anders, a Norweigan man with a severely short haircut who drank beer like it was water, and finally, Glenn, the Australian who had ridden his bicycle from Southeast Asia to the border of Tibet.

And it all seemed like a happy occasion but the truth was I looked around the room at each and every one of them, my fellow students, and didn’t know who to trust. There was a tangible futility in the life we led in Tibet—foreign students in an occupied nation, studying a dying language, filling our evenings with cheap Chinese wine and watered-down beer.

I tore myself away from the dark sky, the shadows of mountains, and walked back downstairs, to bed, alone. As I drifted off to the sounds of revelers beneath me, a monk somewhere in eastern Tibet laid awake. In five days, he’d douse himself in oil, strike a match, and die.

I finished this piece at the NHIA MFA Creative Writing residency in June, and it was featured on the school’s blog: http://mfanhia2013.tumblr.com
If you’re searching for MFA programs, I highly recommend this one.

Review: Portland/Brooklyn

Tin House Issue #53, Portland/Brooklyn Fall 2012

What initially attracted me to this issue of Tin House was the theme: two culturally influential, bicoastal cities, Portland/Brooklyn. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t half-expecting the quirky humor of Portlandia to grace the pages. Contrary to my preconceived notions, the essays, stories and poems investigate the darkness of the two cities, highlighting the similarities and differences between them with a tone that is both celebratory and sardonic.

My favorite pieces included Evan Hughes‘ “Consider the Gentrifier,” Adam Wilson‘s “December Boys Got it Bad,” and Cheston Knapp’s “Faces of Pain,” a seemingly lighthearted, entertaining essay about the wrestling movement in and around Portland. I say “seemingly lighthearted” because Knapp’s essay is ultimately gripping and weighty. He weaves in personal, existential reflections, like admitting he was surprised to find himself caring about turning thirty.

“All the things of promise in my life had become some version of what they’d promised to become, and something about how these possibilities had resolved into reality made me feel as though I were living my life in translation, or as though someone else were living it, really.”

This issue of Tin House didn’t meet my expectations. It exceeded them.

In case you were wondering, I use Grammarly for proofreading because I have nightmares about publicly posting a piece of writing laden with spelling and grammatical errors.

September Reads

R1-05860-0019

I hate to be the last person to break it to you, but…it looks like summer’s over. The days are getting shorter and colder, the New England leaves are turning, and Halloween and Samhain are right around the corner. Break out the sweaters, scarves, jeans, and boots, and while you’re at it, here are four classics that go great with a mug full of chaider (that’s chai + cider; CHAI-DER).

Happy reading! - e.v.


The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy gives away the ending at the very beginning (spoiler alert: Ivan Ilych dies), but Tolstoy’s writing grabs you; it reels you in ’til the last syllable. The mystery of the character’s illness and the question of what happens when he faces his inevitable death keeps you hanging onto every word. Not until the character accepts this inevitability does he think about the suffering he caused for others in what he recalls as an unfulfilled life, one in which he did everything that his family, friends, and society told him he should do. It was a heavy story, and a beautiful read.* Check out this edition published by Melville House in Brooklyn, which prints a series called The Art of the Novella

The Metamorphosis, The Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka

Maybe you’re like me, in that you recall reading “The Metamorphosis” in high school and thinking huh? Kafka’s tale of the traveling salesman turning into a giant bug is absurd. How the family reacts to the character’s state is the true metamorphosis of the story, while “The Hunger Artist” serves as an allegory for art, exploring asceticism, one man’s dying art form, success, and what it means to feel fulfilled with one’s work.*

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Faulkner’s novel is written in fifty-nine segments and an astonishing fifteen different points of view, offering up conflicting and overlapping accounts when the matriarch of the Bundren family, Addie, passes away and the clan transports her body to a cemetery in another town.

A Good Man is Hard to Find: Ten Memorable Short Stories by Flannery O’Connor

They weren’t kidding when they titled this collection “memorable.” I found myself re-reading the first four short stories not long after I first read them; each one is rich and dense like a chocolate espresso layer cake with mocha mascarpone and buttercream frosting. Yeah, it’s that good. O’Connor doesn’t shy away from exposing the meanness and tragedy of life, shocking both the reader and the characters with jolting violence and hardship. The prose is exquisite, the dialogue reveals much about the character’s psychological states, but what I paid particular attention to were the descriptions of the surroundings, which were loaded with symbols. Early on in the collection, I realized something awful was going to occur at the end of each story, but I read and re-read them anyway.

*Both Tolstoy and Kafka were brought to mind when I read this article on the Huffington Post today: Are You Living Your Eulogy or Your Resume?

Review: Kate Christensen’s “Blue Plate Special”

Writer Kate Christensen sits alone in the front row amid a cluster of empty chairs, reviewing notes before a reading from her PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel, The Great Man. Behind a podium at Bass Hall in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the author discusses her MFA experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop, the five year writing slump that followed in New York, and her experience writing The Great Man in the throes of separation from her husband while living in a basement in Queens. She speaks as though she has nothing to hide, and knows that there is no use hiding it anyway, because it is about to be published.

blueplatespecialAt first glance, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites looks like another food-related work of non-fiction (a la The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Animal, Vegetable, Miracle), but Christensen makes it clear that her memoir is not only about food or the author herself, but appetites—a broader, more intangible subject. Food is the context within which Christensen frames her life story; food as a way into the past, to better conjure up memories.

There is a statement in the prologue that anyone with half the amount of life experience wouldn’t be able to get away with: “to taste fully is to live fully. And to live fully is to be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and miniscule.” This sets the bar of expectations high, commencing with a fantastic and heartbreaking tale of Christensen’s upbringing in a single parent household, her travels alone as a young woman, and her marriage to a painter in New York—all of which she describes with a digestible brashness that keeps the story moving along, and most importantly, makes it believable and relatable despite the unusual circumstances of her life. Christensen was either gifted or cursed with an eventful upbringing, and whichever it is, it’s irrelevant, because the way she writes is what’s compelling. In clear and honest prose, she exposes herself fearlessly, reveals the celebratory and shameful moments of her life in equal measure alongside confessions that most might bring to the grave. She doesn’t romanticize her life or the events in it, nor does she describe it in a removed, overly-expository manner. She writes honestly and critically with doses of understated humor, such as this reflection on an ex-boyfriend: “From our first encounter, we became embroiled in a psychodramatic welter of dissonance and incompatibility and thermonuclearly hot sex.” She is extremely self-aware and analytical, almost heartbreakingly so: “He’d married me in part because he loved my wild side, and I’d married him in part because I loved his stable, conventional side…Unfortunately, these were the qualities in ourselves we most wanted to leave behind.”

Christensen’s memoir is attentive to the thoughts and feelings of the other characters, realizing that their existence and experience is just as real and valid: “Jon was so good to me, so loyal and kind and generous and devoted. He did not deserve to have his marriage end.” There is no victim mentality or martyrdom here. The author takes responsibility for her actions and decisions, is aware of patterns (“to put a good face on things in a Pollyannaish way, that lifelong habit of mine”) and claims her downfalls (“I became unhinge, unmoored, ungrounded”), and that is what keeps the reader rooting for her, even if she doesn’t learn from her mistakes or buries herself deeper in a well of her own undoing.

What makes Kate Christensen’s literary memoir a great read is the strength, resilience, and relatability of the main character. You feel like she’s right there with you, cooking soft-boiled eggs with buttered toast and retelling the vivid memory of her father beating her mother at the breakfast table when she was two-years-old. Christensen’s writing transports the reader, and like a good meal, I devoured the book quickly and savored the memory of it for days.

You can read Kate Christensen’s blog (which inspired the book) at http://katechristensen.wordpress.com/ and check out these 13 Author Quotes That Will Make You Hungry, courtesy of Flavorwire 

Run-ons & Reading Lists

dadowriting1I mentioned in my last post that I started an MFA in Creative Writing, which basically means that, when I’m not hunched over a keyboard with my shoulders creeping up toward my ears, I have my nose in a book and my eyebrows are trying to touch each other and that one wrinkle (you know which one I’m talking about, the one smack dab in the middle) gets deeper every day. As part of my curriculum, I read ten books every six weeks (or forty books each semester or eighty books each year or one hundred and sixty books by the end of it all), not to mention literary journals and magazines. Instead of keeping all these glorious words to myself or simply rating them on Goodreads (go on, friend me already), I’ve decided to post reading lists, five books at a time. 
While you’re at it, read Charles Simic’s thoughts on the demise of the used book store and the loss of libraries across the nation, plus Ryan Holiday’s reading lists, his advice on how to read more, and how to digest books above your reading level.
Happy reading! – e.v. de cleyre
 

On Writing by Stephen King

Stephen King’s On Writing was the first book I grabbed this semester, aching for some advice from a man with fifty published novels. I admit, I have never read any of said novels (I can’t stomach scary stories), but I enjoyed his straightforward in-your-face advice on writing, as well as his oddball humor.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Maybe you just groaned and rolled your eyes because you saw the latest film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, or because you literally just read that novel because you’re literally sixteen-years-old. Well, read it again. Fitzgerald’s prose is exquisite; this last line should give you reason enough to revisit the text, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary’s obsession with romance and an idealized version of love and status as influenced by popular culture and society led her to become so wrapped up in fantasies that she could not enjoy her day-to-day life—a social ill that I feel is still prevalent today. Her delusions of love and grandeur lead her to pursue affairs outside her marriage and move around the country, searching for something outside herself until she meets a tragic end. Flaubert’s plot flows seamlessly and his characters are well written, fully formed.

Men Without Women by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway reveals so much by saying so little, subscribing to the Iceberg Theory.

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.  The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. – Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

The story “Hills Like White Elephants” drew me to this collection and I read it multiple times; a compelling short story dominated by dialogue and pared down with intentional omissions. The stories in the collection vary from travel narratives to war to boxing to bullfighting, offering something for the sensitive literary type like me, and the machismo bullfighting type like you. (I know, I know you so well, dear reader.)

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

I read this book. The pages were long and flat and the story was honest and true.

After reading Men Without Women and A Moveable Feast back-to-back, I spoke like a resurrected Hemingway for a solid week. I read this memoir years ago, and in re-reading, I paid closer attention to the flow of the story and how Hemingway framed his days in Paris—specifically, what he decided to include. (This, I believe, can make or break a memoir, as no one wants to hear the author dribble and droll about each and every moment of their life.) He paints himself in Paris like a local who lives like a peasant, offers little detail of his relationship with his wife and son, yet lengthy accounts of his time with F. Scott Fitzgerald that sheds light on Hemingway’s true feelings about expatriates in Europe in the 1920s.

I’ll leave you with what I like to imagine as an honest and true account of Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s: