Saturday, November 14, 2015

Paris, a city close to my young heart


That's the only word right now.

I can't even process what's going on in Paris. I can't imagine what it's like to be there now, to be a resident there right now. This is a city I love.


When I was in college, I took a winter session course with one of my dearest friends that was called France and Economy, or something like that. I was an English major taking an economics class. What was I thinking? Math --at least college math-- was not my strong suit (high school math was a breeze). I got a C in Basic Accounting (Who gets a C in basic accounting?? I do. Me. The lit nerd.). And now I'm going to take a French economics course when I can't even understand my own personal economics?? What the what?

Here's the draw: I got to go to Paris and Evian during winter break!

How could I not sign up for this class? This was my chance to "go abroad" as I was too chicken to commit to an entire semester living overseas. And it was in France! The country I have loved since seventh grade when my parents signed me up for French class instead of Spanish, unbeknownst to me. I will admit that my seventh grade self was mad at this as everyone else was taking Spanish. French was just weird with all their rough throaty Rs. But after a month of classes, I loved the feel of the language in my mouth, in my throat: the softness of vowels against consonants that undulated with their own softness, alternating with occasional sharp edges. And yes, I learned to love those throaty Rs.

This was the country I fell in love with in high school when I went on a ten-day school trip, as I fumbled my way through the teenage years. To see, first-hand, the things I had studied: Versailles and its Hall of Mirrors, the Louvre and Mona Lisa herself, the Arc de Triomphe, and of course, la Tour Eiffel. It was an experience that helped shape me -- to physically connect with the abstract concepts presented in a textbook. These were actual things that helped create the very city I stood in. Of course, the Parisian reputation of being the city of love helped a little, too. When you're seventeen, everything is about love, or the lack of it.

So I signed up for this college course, under the guise of furthering my education, of branching out. Really, I just wanted to go to France with my best friend.

There, in Paris and later in Evian, there was a lot of fumbling around. Or as I liked to call it at that time: exploring.

I visited all the places I had seen in high school and then some. I checked out the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art museum, and found myself baffled by a piece that was simply a small canvas painted, in its entirety, a bright blue. I was blown away by the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, particularly, of course, the Rose Window. I did some shopping on the Champs Elysees and took advantage of the no-drinking-age life by having wine with every lunch and dinner I had. I felt fancy, grown up. I remember climbing the steps to Sacre Coeur and visiting Montmartre, seeing all of the artists painting and selling their work. I remember thinking, that's what I want to do: create art and sell it -- what an amazing life that must be! Yes, totally romanticized notions of the artist's life, but at the essence of that was my desire to create and to be true to one's life calling.

I loved my routine of going to the boulangerie and getting a baguette and some camembert cheese and walking around the city while eating it. Yes, I ate and walked. At the same time. Maybe this is how Parisians stay so slim despite their dairy-heavy cuisine, I thought to myself.

I loved speaking French. Because I was not white and, thus, not obviously American (at least in my mind), I tried so hard to hide my American accent when I spoke French. I didn't want to be seen as American -- this was when Parisians had the reputation of hating Americans in that snobby kind of way (as in, "You're American? I will give you a hard time."). Of course, I came to find that this was not the case as I engaged with so many wonderful, generous people, some of whom even tried to help me with my pronunciations. Sure, there were a select few who were bent on proving the snobby-Parisian reputation ("Non, je ne parle pas anglais" when I just heard you speak English to that other person!), but on the whole, I found a city full of kind people.

But the fumbling around? That's describing the interactions our group had with each other while in Paris. Various hookups and dramatic fights and plenty of drunk crying. Surprising for a group of college students, right? Funny enough, I wasn't part of that (except for maybe the drunk part) -- I was the observer. Figures. The poet and writer taking notes in her little journal, dreaming of the day that she can sit in a Parisian cafe, maybe at a small sidewalk table, with a cup of cafe au lait and, just for fun, a cigarette. Needless to say, I learned a lot on that trip.

This is why I consider Paris to be my coming-of-age city.


When I heard about the attacks in Paris last night, my skin rose into goosebumps. My body didn't want to move. As I write this, I want to stay glued to the computer and watch the news feeds on The Guardian for updates. I don't know anyone personally in Paris. I have a friend who is from there, who has family living there; I have no updates from him. I cannot imagine what he must be experiencing now, being here, in the US. 

But even though I know no one in the City of Lights, I do know the city itself as a real living presence in my life. For this to happen, for a group of people to try to put out the lights of this city, it breaks my heart. I felt so much love in Paris, so much creative energy, so much possibility that for something like this to happen, how can I not grieve?

I know that there are complex politics at play here. I know that. I am not trying to gloss over the political significance of these attacks and what the consequences will look like. I know that those consequences will not be ones that I agree with. I know we live in a world that grows increasingly violent.

I just want to take the time to grieve the loss of life, of human life, in great numbers. To honor the love that I feel for Paris. To do this before the grief turns to anger, to defiance, to questions about next-actions. Grief first. Then, maybe, when I'm ready, then love.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Post-BinderCon notes

This past weekend was BinderCon NY, a conference for women writers. It's more about the business of writing and networking, but there were a couple of workshops that addressed the act of writing ("Writing the (An)Other", "Three months, 100 pages"). I came away with a few great insights.

Insight 1: Career as writer

You don't have to be just a creative writer (poet, novelist, etc) to earn income as a writer. When you do this, you tend to have teaching as your income-generating gig -- an income that is meager if you're an average writer and not some national literary superstar. Creative writers tend to need to produce "great works of literature" in order to make money from their writing. I know one fiction writer who is desperately trying to finish her novel because that will lead to more (and possibly better) teaching jobs. She is worried she will not be able to provide for her kids (she's a single parent). (Notice that the writing of the novel is to get another teaching job, not to get paid handsomely for writing a novel.) Poets need not apply. There is no money in poetry.

Veronica Chambers, who conducted this workshop, posed the possibility of writing 100 pages in three months. What's funny is that I came away with the idea of earning income from writing and can't remember what she said about getting those 100 pages written (but I have notes!). I do remember her saying, "I didn't say they would be good pages." Anyway, she has written twentysome books --from children's books to her latest book written with Michael Strayhan. This is what she said that stuck with me (I'm paraphrasing): she "came up", career wise, with Edwidge Danticat (with whom she's good friends) and Junot Diaz -- meaning, they are peers. While Edwidge & Junot both have to write phenomenal literary books to earn income (outside of teaching) --which happens over a long period of time in which the book is being created-- she has made a profession out of writing. Meaning, she's always writing and getting paid for writing. Magazine writing. Novels. Co-authoring. Writing children's books. Writing self-help, inspirational books. Her writing knows no genre bounds!

This is something I'm chewing on.

Insight 2: Time

Where am I giving my time away? How am I spending my time?

Both Veronica's workshop and another workshop on working as a full-time artist (called "Tools for Transition") addressed the subject of time. In Veronica's workshop, she said that we needed to honor our writing like we honor appointments. So, schedule writing time. Put it down in your appointment book. This is something I do already, BUT I don't do that with reading. Reading is writing; it's part of the process. So now, I am scheduling reading and doing my best to not devalue that time I've dedicated to reading (you know how that goes: "Oh, I can read that later -- I have to do laundry now -- it's piling up!").

In this "Tools for Transition" workshop, Yolanda Wisher gave us concrete ways of seeing how we use our time. And I did not like what I saw.

First: a pie chart. There are 168 hours in a week. When you put it that way, it doesn't sound like a lot of hours. So Yolanda broke down those 168 hours into a pie chart, showing where her time was spent when she was working a traditional full-time job.  Fourteen of those hours were spent commuting. That's a lot of hours in the car. Over half --maybe two-thirds-- of her pie chart was time spent driving, sleeping, and at the job. I thought about my own pie chart (which I have yet to do on paper) and asked: is that how I want to spend my life? Mostly in a traditional job?? And driving?? Hmmm...

Second: the formula. Take the age you think you'll live to (I think I'm going to live to be a hundred) and subtract your current age. Take that number and divide by three. Take that number and multiply by 365. Take that answer and multiply by 24. The result? The waking hours you have left to live. I looked at that number and thought: holy shit! That's not a lot of hours. Not for a lifetime. And I want to live to 100! And while this might be depressing to some, it was a motivator for me. I want to spend my time more wisely. I want to be doing things that will contribute to my goal of THRIVING in this life.

And so, I'm reassessing.

How am I spending my time now? And how do I want to spend my time? What can I do to make sure I'm making the most of my time? (Well, for one: less time on FB would be helpful!) How can I balance my time between the things that I need to do, the things that are good for me (like sleep!), and the things I want to do? How do I honor boundaries? Meaning, for one, how can I make myself *stop* working all of the time? I really mean, ALL of the time.

I don't have answers but I am thinking about these questions and trying out different things. We'll see how it goes.


On an entirely separate subject, I signed up for a speed pitch session with a literary agent at this conference. Something I hesitated to do, but got some encouragement with "Why not? It'll be a good learning experience." and "Think about it like a cocktail party conversation." So, I felt confident. Yes, I said. I'll sign up, go in, talk to the agent --who I'm reminded is also an actual human being!-- and see what happens.

And what happened?


Now, as a poet, I don't need an agent. We won't get into the business of poetry business because that will just depress me. I signed up for the pitch session because I'm also working on short stories and personal essays. I went in with the intention to gather as much information about the publishing landscape for prose as I could. Good strategy, yes? Yes.

And then the appointment time completely slipped my mind.

I had lunch with a bunch of friends and got all wrapped up in various conversations. My pitch was a little after lunch. I totally forgot. After lunch, I headed over to the next session with everyone I was with. I happened to look at my watch at 2:47pm. A panic seized me. Shit! My pitch! It was at 2:45pm. I grabbed my things & left the session. On my way to the elevator, I asked myself, should I even go? It's a ten-minute pitch and by the time I get there... Shit, shit, shit. One of the staff was encouraging, saying, well, you still have time, even if it's just five minutes. She had a point. Better to go for it with whatever time I had left than to do nothing. At the very least, I could apologize so that this agent didn't think me to be intentionally rude and unprofessional. But still. How awful.

The pitch itself was a mess. After profusely apologizing, I mentioned my two projects and rambled on about the short story collection. When I realized I was doing this, I shifted my talk to questions that I had prepared for her. What's the publishing landscape like right now for this kind of project? I needed to take the focus off me. I also needed to just stop talking. And just when I was about to get some really good info from her, they called time & made us all leave. I apologized again and left, mentally kicking myself for this disaster.

The good news? Aside from being on time, I know what I need to do next time I sign up for a pitch (which I do see myself doing). I also now have some new questions for the short story I've been working on lately, which may add the depth it's been missing. We'll see. I'm just feeling slightly bad because some folks have shared good experiences with their pitch sessions, including the awesome "send me some pages". *sigh* I guess I have a lot more work to do if I'm going to be a fictionist, too.

On that note, I'd better get to writing work!

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Out of the Binders

I'm going to BinderCon today! Woo! I'll post updates (if there's wi-fi) as the conference unfolds.

First up: keynote by Lizz WInstead, co-creator of "The Daily Show"

Stay tuned!

Oh yeah, and I'm one of fifty BinderCon scholars. So that's cool. :)