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Thursday
Dec182014

From "The Fiend"

“Marusia, sweetheart!” says he, “would you like me to marry you?”

“If you like to marry me, I will gladly marry you. But where do you come from?”

“From such and such a place. I’m clerk at a merchant’s.”

Then they bade each other farewell and separated. When Marusia got home, her mother asked her:

“Well, daughter! have you enjoyed yourself?”

“Yes, mother. But I’ve something pleasant to tell you besides. There was a lad there from the neighborhood, good-looking and with lots of money, and he promised to marry me.”

“Harkye Marusia! When you go to where the girls are to-morrow, take a ball of thread with you, make a noose in it, and, when you are going to see him off, throw it over one of his buttons, and quietly unroll the ball; then, by means of the thread, you will be able to find out where he lives.”

Next day Marusia went to the gathering, and took a ball of thread with her. The youth came again.

“Good evening, Marusia!” said he.

“Good evening!” said she.

Games began and dances. Even more than before did he stick to Marusia, not a step would he budge from her. The time came for going home.

“Come and see me off, Marusia!” says the stranger.

She went out into the street, and while she was taking leave of him she quietly dropped the noose over one of his buttons. He went his way, but she remained where she was, unrolling the ball. When she had unrolled the whole of it, she ran after the thread to find out where her betrothed lived. At first the thread followed the road, then it stretched across hedges and ditches, and led Marusia towards the church and right up to the porch. Marusia tried the door; it was locked. She went round the church, found a ladder, set it against a window, and climbed up it to see what was going on inside. Having got into the church, she looked—and saw her betrothed standing beside a grave and devouring a dead body—for a corpse had been left for that night in the church.

source courtesy of Project Gutenberg

Thursday
Nov062014

Nanowrimo Manifesto, 2014 modified edition

I've never done Nanowrimo before, never sat down for a month and binge-written that, along with the binge-eating, so often heralds mid-fall for novelists. I know many people who have, though, and successfully, but something about sitting at a desk, pounding out words I hate, or worse, waiting for words that won't come, always put me off. This year, however, I think a modified version will be just the ticket. 

2014 has been nothing if not a year that has taught me how to abandon plans, reframe goals, and adjust to less-than-ideal circumstances, if not always gracefully, then at least with full acceptance of reality. I suppose we all need these years once in awhile; I'm dearly hoping that this one, and only this one, will be mine, at least for some time. And given that, if all goes well, we'll have an infant in the house by late spring, this was probably the time to go through this training. For several years now I've paid very close attention to what women writers have said about having kids, about not having kids, and about their own writing. I've collected stories of the ones who have managed to write books with children, and not just before. I've prayed that I wasn't like Ann Patchett, unbeknownst to myself, secretly unable to have kids and produce quality work, doomed to try to do both rather than what I should be doing, sloughing off one with crazy conviction and writing multiple award-winning novels.

But I never did think this would be my situation; after all, things were proceeding along reasonably well with my agent spearheading my own round of editorial submissions, and it looked like I was going to sneak in just under the wire, giving birth, as it were, to a book before a baby.

Turns out 2014 had other plans. Or the publishing industry did. Or it's just one of those things.

I recently wrote in a fellowship application that the most tangible proof of my sustained commitment to writing is the fact that, on the heels of a pretty brutal, and ultimately fruitless, submission cycle, I'm both researching small presses for my first manuscript and working on the second. I believe this with all of my slightly-bruised heart, and I have never, for some strange reason, felt more like a writer than I do now. Maybe that's another lesson of 2014, that my identity as a writer has never, despite what I may have believed from time to time, been tied to any external validation. I have no book. I have very few publishing credits, as I've spent the past seven years focusing on a manuscript that, as has been established, won't find a home this year, unless I'm damn lucky. And yet. Here I am, still noting the phases of my writing life, with no plans to stop any time soon. Or ever, really.

(Not to say that I don't remind myself, often daily, that getting agented and having my manuscript sent out on broad submission is a form of external validation, that this process would have been far easier, and far more forgiving, ten years ago, that it might even be so ten years in the future, and so on and on and on. Not to say that rejection doesn't sting, or that I don't wonder with mild despair why it is that I'm clearly not going to be a writer who breaks out in her twenties--that ship sailed years ago. But my sense of my self, my sense of vocation, isn't nearly as tied to these things as I once suspected that it was.)

Here's the thing: I still believe in my work. I still believe that it's worth writing, and moreover, that it's worth reading, even if you aren't me or the handful of gentle, kind people who currently allow me to bug them for manuscript trades from time to time, despite my own snail's pace as a reader. I know that I've gotten better, a lot better, over the years of writing and revising, writing and revising. Seven years was often the length of an apprenticeship, after all, and on good days, that doesn't feel coincidental to me. And I know now that how I do this work is necessarily going have to shift in the near future, probably for several years.

And so, my own Nanowrimo, modified. Write something every day. Get into that head space, even if it's just for twenty minutes. Today, it's this post. Tomorrow, we'll see what strikes my fancy. This isn't a year for focus, after all, and I have many new projects in the works. But it is a year to learn how to produce in circumstances where time and energy are tight. So November, for me, is less about producing a particular word count than it is about getting creative with time, with space, and with what commitment looks like.

I'm inclined to end this post by asking you to wish me luck. And I'm not beyond taking any and all well wishes, in whatever form people are inclined to send them. But honestly, sitting here on November first, nearly 20 weeks pregnant, monitoring a puppy, worrying about family health issues, working full time, and trying to keep the house moderately clean, I haven't ever felt stronger in my convictions. I'm a writer. And so that's what I'll do--I'll write.

 

Saturday
Nov012014

Congrats to Kim Golden and Maybe Baby!

Loyalty-contributor Kim Golden has done it again--her self-published women's fiction novel Maybe Baby has been awarded Bronze in the Readers' Favorite 2014 International Book Awards! You can find her book in the Fiction-Drama category, but what I recommend most strongly is that you get yourself a copy, digital or print, and start reading. It's escapist, page-turning reading at its best, complete with a healthy dose of armchair travel, but as a very important part of my childhood says, you don't have to take my word for it.

Imagine finding out you could never have a baby with the man you love...

Expat American Laney Halliwell finds out the hard way when Niklas tells her he had a vasectomy before they met and isn't interested in reversing it. Why should he? They've got his kids from his first marriage and an enviable life in Stockholm.

What if you fell in love in the most unexpected way...?

But Laney wants more. So when a friend suggests she look into an alternative sperm bank in Copenhagen to find a potential father for her baby, things don't go exactly as planned. Especially when Laney meets Mads and finds herself falling in love.

Congratulations to Kim!

Monday
Aug182014

A Stop on the Virtual Blog Tour

It's been awhile! But I've been busy working on a new manuscript (a bit more below) and keeping my head above water. Some months are simply like that. And so I'm very grateful for the invitation that came my way from my former grad school colleague and wonderful writer Rashaan Alexis Meneses to join a blog tour in progress. 

Via Rashaan's site, and with a nod to the writer who tagged her, Barbara Jane Reyes, here's what a blog tour entails:

The “virtual blog tour” is an excellent, friendly way for writers, artists, and other creative folks to bring attention to their own work as well as that of others. It begins with an invitation from another artist or writer. Then in your blog you acknowledge the person who invited you, answer four given questions about your work and your process, and then invite three other people to participate. These people then do the same thing, referring their blog readers to the blogs of three more people, and so on. It’s a wonderful sort of “pyramid scheme” that’s beneficial for everyone: the artists and writers as well as the readers of their blogs. We can follow links from blog to blog and then we can all learn about different kinds of creative process and also find new writers and artists we may not have known about before.

So! First to introduce Rashaan. Rashaan is my blogging inspiration and the founder of Ruelle Electrique, an online literary salon. Her imagination is vast--global, in fact, and she's got all sorts of projects in the works, from analyzing Elizabethan transculturation to a manuscript about Filipino cruise ship workers, the latter one that I've been lucky enough to catch glimpses of in progres. And one of the best parts of our literary friendship has been watching her work find its place in the world. Most recently, her short story "The Others Are Strangers," appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the journal New Letters. Inspired by her recent residency in Scotland, this piece continues her project of exploring her truly global imagination. It's well worth a read.

From "The Others Are Strangers":

Despite all these dates that floated in his head, a constellation of facts with no clear order, Ewan could remember but a faint memory long, long ago, of himself, Callum, Mum, and Dad there at that rickety kitchen table, the same humming refrigerator knocking noise into their Friday dinner, as Dad kept shadow-boxing, showing Ewan how to throw a punch. Was it what Callum said or his father’s reaction that made all four practically spit out their food in hysteria? It was a belly-holding kind of laugh, a giggle fever going round and round the table in fits. Ewan didn’t know the kitchen light could get so bright. He hadn’t seen cheeks so red from humor. Now he wanted that ache more than anything. A feel-good, stomach-stitched ache that pinched his cheeks and made him almost tear up. 

And as for the questions for me...

1. What are you currently working on?

Mainly, a currently-untitled novel about a girl who spends the entirity of World War I deep in the Canadian woods with her parents, and what happens when she comes back out again. I've been obsessed with the interwar period for a long time, and this character, and how she handles her dislocation from the major event of her generation, is proving to be a fascinating way into this world. Plus, there are Russian fairy tales and long, dark winters and possibly somewhat supernatural books. As there often are.

I do have some short pieces in the works, which is unusual for me, but I'm going with it. I'm also continuing my quest, though it can feel a touch Quixotic, to find a home for my first novel, A Ghost at the Edge of the Sea, in this climate-changing ecosystem of publishing.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I find that my work skews global, that I'm inspired by dislocation of all kinds, and that the reality we know tends to bleed into the supernatural, often without my conscious intent. If there's a ghost in my work, she's likely an actual ghost. Mainstream literary fiction so often tends towards realism, though that's changing a bit, but I've never been one for the quiet moment of revelation on a benign suburban evening type of story, as a writer or as a reader. It feels hubristic for me to say that I'm the only one doing this, or even that it sets my work apart--A Tale for the Time Being is, after all, one of my favorite books I've read this year, in which Ozeki delivers a gorgeous supernatural and persistently global tale of coming to terms with dislocation.  I hope to add to the growing body of work in this spirit.

3. Why do you write/create what you do?

One could say that the dislocation fascination comes from near-constant moves, especially as a child. One could also point to various English degrees, etc. But really, I've been telling stories, and writing them down, since I could hold a pencil. It's simply innate to my own being. It feels as necessary as exercise when it comes to clearing my head and finding some sort of internal peace. So I try to do it as well, and as often, as possible.

4. How does your writing/creative process work?

During the year I lived in Stockholm and didn't work full time, I could have probably given a better, or more detailed, answer. But now that the day job has returned and my life continues to fill with various additional mammals who need to be exercised and fed, it's a bit more catch-as-catch-can. However, for the first time in a long time, my day job is not academic. While I miss teaching a great deal, I've found that the current routine does allow for more persistent progress. My current goal is five hundred words five days a week. It's not something I've tried before, but it's working for me. Five hundred words, for me, is easy enough that I'll sit down, even if time is short, even if the time and place is less than ideal, and bang them out. And usually, I end up with more than five hundred.

Right now, that very pragmatic answer is the most honest, and since I'm focusing on producing a new manuscript, it's also proven effective. But if we step away from numbers, this project is always in the back of my mind, percolating, and I'm very aware of that, often tossing ideas or images into my subconscious to see what comes back out. As a college writing professor once told me, don't make the mistake as a writer of forgetting to live, or you'll run out of material. And when the stars align, I absolutely love to sit down at my desk, which is covered with bits and pieces of inspiration, light a candle, and get to work.

And now, for more writers! I've chosen these four not only because they inspire me as writers, but because they inspire me with their blog presence, for one reason or another. I won't tell all the reasons--you should check out their work yourself--so without further ado, the introductions:

Mary Volmer is the author of the novel Crown of Dust. She was the recipient of a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to the University of Wales, and a Chester Aaron and an Agnes Butler Scholarship in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College, California. Mary has also been awarded fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Her essays and non-fiction have appeared in various places, including Mutha Magazine, Women's Basketball Magazine, and NPR's "this i believe series." Her most recent short fiction will appear in The Farallon Review in the fall (2014). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is happily at work on her second book.

Allison Landa is a Berkeley, CA-based writer of fiction and memoir. She earned an MFA in creative writing at St. Mary's College of California and has held residencies at The MacDowell Colony, Playa Summer Lake, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts and The Julia and David White Artist's Colony. Her memoir, BEARDED LADY, is represented by Naomi Davis of Inklings Literary Agency. Visit her at www.allisonlanda.com.

Kim Golden is an expat American writer based in Stockholm, Sweden. Her latest novel, Maybe Baby, is a finalist for the 2014 Readers' Favorite Book Awards. Find out more about Kim and her writing at http://kim-golden.com.

Ron Pavellas has written essays, poetry, memoirs, and short stories since 1993, and is currently focused on a novel set in the future. Since 2007, Ron has published several blogs, the main one,The Pavellas Perspective, containing articles on geopolitics, government, history, and world affairs. A Few Words is devoted to creative writing. In all, his blogs have received over 250,000 views. He has self-published three books of short writings, available for view at this site. Several of Ron’s poems have been published by local poetry groups in California, and one on the website of Contemporary Haibun OnlineRon has given readings of his poetry in the Southern San Francisco Bay Area and in Stockholm. His other interests include appreciation of symphonic and chamber music. He writes articles on music in Making Musical Memories. He has been a member of the Stockholm writers Group since 2007.

Check them out!

Thursday
Jun122014

What Killing Tenure Won't Address

When I'm not writing fiction, I work in education. I also live in California, I hope to have children, and I plan to send said kids to public school. Thus the recent court decision Vergara v. California, in which teacher tenure was ruled unconstitutional, cuts close to the bone. I'll say right here up front that I'm not a labor scholar, but I am operating under the assumption that the goal is a quality education for all students, especially for those who are least likely to get it via any other means, and for me, this means quality state schools. As my writing here is often at least a little personal, I'm going to take advantage of the blog format, skip the numbers and source research for now, and go straight to my gut-level response: this is not going to be good, not for students, and not for teachers.

There's an inclination in this valley to approach all problems in life from an engineering mindset, as one might expect. Problem is, this often translates not into a laser-like focus on the most stunningly broken parts of a system but into a laser-like focus on a specific part of the system with absolutely no ability or inclination to consider how it functions in the larger whole. There are huge and entrenched socio-historical-political realities that impact our education system at all levels, and a single part of how teachers are compensated can't possibly do justic to the complicated reality.

We all know there are horrible teachers out there. We also know that many of them tend to accumulate at the bottom of the system--that is, the school districts in which the least amount of teachers ultimately choose to work. We also know that these districts tend to be the ones with the greatest population of traditionally underserved students of all kinds--of black and brown students, of low-income students, of students from families without a strong history of education, of ELD students who have to work double-time to learn the language and the material, etc.

Tenure isn't why these teachers end up in these particular places, and while it does make it more difficult to get rid of them, I don't believe that simply killing it is going to have any positive impact on student success rate. I can see why someone might fixate on it--after all, if you're used to an office-and-boardroom environment, just the idea of keeping an employee around who doesn't contribute to the bottom line can induce nausea.

But here's the thing: kids aren't anyone's bottom line, or at least they shouldn't be. And I can think of many other things that have a greater influence on why poor teachers end up coming to struggling districts--and end up staying--than tenure.

 

  • FUNDING AND TEACHER PAY. Pay in these districts is usually bad. The way we fund our education system here makes absolutely no sense to me, unless you assume that the goal is to keep poor students and their families intergenerationally poor. Fund based on property tax? Threaten to kill funding if schools can't get their most vulnerable students to care about filling in bubbles? Threaten to close the entire school, often one of the few safe places in a neighborhood (not to mention a reliable source of food), gut the staff (many, if not most, of whom have been forming solid relationships with the student body), and create more chaos in the lives of the students, all in the name of "improving" their education? Right. Those things will work. In the meantime, salaries will remain low, even when compared to neighboring, but slightly wealthier, districts without the same kinds of needs. So a good teacher who needs to support his or her family can very easily be forced out simply based on economic realities. I've seen it happen. Right now, tenure is often the only part of the compensation package that's worth much of anything.
  • JOB SECURITY. This isn't just tenure, though tenure is a huge part of it. Teachers in these districts (which are the most inclined to be hit hard by economic downturns) are vulnerable, even if they do manage to stick around. Their pensions can be hit. Their medical benefits can be cut, or shrunk down until they apply only to the district employee, not his or her family (see: leaving based on personal economic reality and the need to support a family). Last hired first fired takes tenure into account, sure, but if your entire school is liable to be taken over and the staff either dumped or required to reinterview for their jobs, it doesn't mean much. That's hardly an environment that's going to attract skilled teachers.
  • SELECTING FOR MARTYRS. Don't get me wrong--I remember seeing the trailor for Dangerous Minds in the theater when I was in high school myself, and I was mildly impressed, though I didn't actually go watch it. But when Freedom Writers came out, I was a little more skeptical about the whole great-white-hope teacher-as-savior-in-urban (read: black)-school trope. So not only are teachers intended to get in there and "save" their students, they're expected to work extra jobs in order to buy the kids books. They're expected to neglect their own personal lives in order to complete a superhuman task (Waiting for Superman spells it out right there in the title). Basically, it's not a job--it's a calling, it's a passion, and that often means that when teachers do things like, you know, ask for pay and professional respect, along with working conditions that might allow them to stay at a school for twenty years without being chewed up and spit out, people are shocked. And then, all too frequently, angry. Because that's not how we talk about teachers--they're either martyrs or leeches. Models like that of Teach for America don't help either. Throwing underprepared college grads, no matter how innately talented, into the most difficult classrooms in the country is not a model for success. No, it's a model for burnout on the part of the teachers, incredibly high turnover (which means a loss of campus and district investment in training), and even more disrupted relationships for students for whom school is often one of few stable places in their lives.

So if you take away tenure under the rationale that it will make it easier to get rid of bad teachers in underserved districts, I have news for you: the only reason the bad teachers are there in the first place is because they can be. And it's also because they can't be anywhere else. Try to keep a failing teacher in a well-funding, parent-supported suburban school and see what happens. Tenure doesn't mean teachers can't be fired; it means that it has to follow a union-negotiated process. If a warm body is your standard, a warm body is what you'll get. And don't even get me started on the way this often plays out, where only those teachers who have other sources of family wealth or income can afford not to let compensation become a major issue, not to mention the general trend toward resegregation at schools on all levels. 

Fire all the teachers you want if tenure really does vanish. Go ahead. And congratulate yourself that you're having a real impact on education. Just don't expect highly qualified, compassionate, and dynamic teachers to line up to replace them until you address far more of the broken education system we've all got on our hands. Don't delude yourself into thinking that your impact will make any kind of positive, comprehensive difference.