November 9th, 2016

After midnight, moments after setting my iPhone on the nightstand, deciding I couldn’t refresh NPR.org one more time, I heard what I thought was a gunshot. I live in a red state and my first assumption with every bang is it’s a gunshot, but then there was another, and another, four bangs with a silent even pause between each one.

“Fireworks,” my husband said. “Trump won.”

We both reached for our phones. 244 electoral college votes became 279 votes and the angry caricatures of both Trump’s and Clintons faces stared back at me from their places above the abstract map of blue and red squares. We turned out the light and went to bed.

*

I don’t remember what I dreamt about, or if a dreamt anything. My brother said he dreamt about zombies. At 4:30am I woke up, I can only assume from stress or panic. With deep breaths I fell back asleep only to awaken, leering, two and a half hours later. My period started. Even my body was exhibiting some kind of ironic biological defiance to America’s new reality.

Two days before, a friend and I had hosted the first event in a series of Write-Ins, an hour for people to come together to write and be in community with one another. The series was part of a literary organization (with a hardly subtle hint of feminism) that we started with a mission to create more writing opportunities in our town. Two days before we were feeling revolutionary and empowered. Overnight our confidence turned to desperation.

The day after the election, my friend’s text to me read, “Hello. Did you get any sleep? I want to do something. Hold safe space for people to write and hug and be. What can we do?”

I texted back, “Barely. We could do another impromptu/pop up Write-In maybe,” and then I digressed as I thought about my commitments for the rest of the day.

I had to meet a student at my office then teach a composition class. Also, I was an artist-in-residence at the public library. I had been leading a workshop for the last four weeks leading up to the election. I was helping teens write letters to the next president as part of a project hosted by the National Writing Project.

The rest of my text read, “I don’t know what I’m going to say to the two thirteen your old girls who participated in the Letters to the Next President project—we’re supposed to have a pizza party at the library tonight.”

The moment needed immediacy and action, but I was grieving along with everyone else in my bubble of America. I wanted to hide. I called my friend and we poured over our options. Our literary organization was new and we had no idea what the political leanings were of our participants. In the end, she opened her home to anyone who wanted a place to write but asked people to private message her for the address.

I stumbled through my morning and wondered how I would face my students, many of whom had made it clear in one way or another that they were Trump supporters.

When I got dressed I wore a jacket I purchased from J. Crew several years ago when Mad Men style was a thing. I curled my hair and put on some lipstick and my big black sunglasses. I looked like Jackie Kennedy Onassis. I thought about how she performed her civic duties at a time when she might have wanted to hide.

On campus, walking to the liberal arts building I passed students. Fear set in, labeling set in, and everyone I passed was either a “likely Clinton supporter,” which brought a feeling of relief, or a “likely Trump supporter,” which brought on a feeling of distress. I’m not proud that in that moment I was engaging in the same kind of irrational thinking that contributed to Trump’s election in the first place.

Before my lecture, I had to meet the student who needed to take a test. She arrived at my office and her greeting was careful, her voice polite, and it took on a tone she hadn’t used with me all semester. Though I had never said it she knew which side I was on, and I which side she was on. We exchanged the appropriate professor/student pleasantries and I sent her to a conference room to take her exam.

While she worked I graded papers. I checked Twitter and Facebook. I sent texts to my brother and my husband. I wanted to cry but didn’t because I didn’t know how my students would meet my vulnerability. I tried to understand what exactly I wanted to cry about.

Before class I went to the bathroom and coming out of the stall I ran into a student who had written an essay for me about voter apathy. She was my mirror that morning. We couldn’t smile. Our eyes were tired. Our skin lacked the pink that comes with breathing deeply. We didn’t say anything to each other but we knew.

*

On my lunch break, I watched Clinton’s concession speech and had my cathartic moment. I sobbed while admiring those steely nerves that characterized her as being robotic. I listened to her words mindfully (it was the first time in a while I hadn’t scanned something on my phone during a long video), and near the end of twelve minutes, I found the smallest ray of hope. She said, “To all the little girls watching…never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world,” and it reminded me of the two girls who were taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them, who were asking important questions and finding their way through the answers. Hope for me was two girls who wrote letters to the future president about making school lunches healthy, and developing community programs to educate people about nutrition choices. Hope was two little girls who, despite the outcome of the election, believed their voices would be heard.

*

That night we had our pizza party at the library, the girls and I. We read letters about medical marijuana and cyber bullying, and unemployment, and we shared ideas and opinions. We smiled and we laughed because we needed to.

On the day after the 2016 election, in my darkest moments, I was planning for the worst. I was planning for the reality that I could lose my health insurance and that my student loan payments might not be adjusted for my income anymore. And when I ran out of plans I worried. Worried whether my cousin’s husband and family would be allowed to stay or return to the United States because they are Muslim. I worried for my Muslim students and my African American students and my gay students and my female students.

But eating pizza in a small conference room with two intelligent, adolescent girls, I realized I was doing something, however small my actions might seem.

I was doing something by mentoring them. I was doing something by teaching my Trump supporting college students how to write effectively and think clearly. I was doing something by running a literary organization with my friend, even if our feminism made us vulnerable.

And with these thoughts the hope caught on and pumped in my heart, like small bangs, with silent even pauses between them.

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Things of the Week: Literary Billings Edition

Introducing BALA: After a wave of poetry activity in our town (much of it tied to a grant from the Pulitzer Foundation), my friend Anna Paige and I found ourselves talking about the need for more writing activities and events in Billings, MT. With a little bit of serendipity and some good old fashioned networking, we met one of the founders of the Helena Area Literary Arts. Realizing that what they do is AMAZING we decided to create a version of their organization here in Billings.

And so we would like to introduce Billings Area Literary Arts (BALA), a new organization dedicated to building and enhancing literary arts in and around Billings, Montana.

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Logo design by Kate Restad of Pioneer Creative

BALA will be offering a variety of events dedicated to writing, starting with a series of Write-Ins.

Write-In: to occupy a place as a form of creation.

On the first and third Monday of every month, Billings Area Literary Arts (BALA) will host an hour of dedicated time and space to write. Participants are invited to come to MoAV Coffee to write, edit, revise, or share as part of the writing process. Moderators Anna Paige and Ashley Warren will be available to give feedback on short pieces or excerpts from longer works as well.

Join us for our first Write-In!
Monday, November 7th
5:30-6:30PM
MoAV Coffee
2501 Montana Ave.

*Please bring whatever writing tools you like to use. (Paper, pens, laptop, tablet etc.)

In addition to these Write-Ins, we’ll be scheduling more events in the near future. Here’s a sneak peek:

Flight of Writers: In collaboration with Harper and Madison and Lilac, BALA will host a night of writing, food, wine, and art. Guests will enjoy pairings of literary, culinary, and artistic courses, a true feast for the senses.

A Reading of Her Own: These readings will be dedicated to showcasing female-identified writers who will share short, 800 word or 8-minute long memoirs at an open-mic night.

If you would like to be added to the BALA mailing list, please send an email to billingsliteraryarts at gmail dot com.

Another cool thing I’m doing: I am honored to have been selected as an Artist-in-Residence with the Billings Public Library, specifically in the TECH Lab, an education and creation hub reserved for teens.

During my time as Artist-in-Residence, I have been helping teens write letters to the next president as part of the national project Letters to the Next President 2.0 hosted by the National Writing Project.

Our project was covered by the local news this week–our clip begins at 9:12.

Things of the Week 8/31/16

Made up word: un-bungler–a person who is a fixer but isn’t as badass as Olivia Pope

Current Obsessions: recipes I can make from things grown in my garden, bergamot oil, the TV show Superstore

Trying: Ekphrastic poetry. I’m collaborating with local artist Michelle Dyk to create poetry from some of her beautiful collage work. A sample of my current inspirations:

Rabbit hole: articles on The Guardian containing research about dogs

  1. “Dogs understand both words and intonation of human speech” 
  2. “Study showing decline in dog fertility may have human implications”
  3. “Labradors may be genetically ‘hard-wired’ for greed” 

Wow: Beyoncé at the VMAs

Learned: Chuck Tingle lives in my town. 

Re-learning: Learning Management Systems (the irony is not lost on me)

Things of the Week 8/10/16

Funny: The Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day I Woke Up as a Debut Author: Jade Sharma Tries to be Happy About the Publication of PROBLEMS August 4, 2016 on Literary Hub 

Alfred Hitchcock’s, The BirdsWas awoken by a flock of sparrows battling in a tree directly outside my bedroom window. Went to the bathroom and discovered one had managed to maneuver itself under the screen and between the storm window and the actual window. It looked like a living shadowbox. Only days before while practicing yoga I watched a sparrow try to enter our house in a similar manner.

Looking Forward to: roadtrip to Missoula with greyhounds in tow, stopping in Bozeman to eat at Roost, and listening to episodes of RadioLab on the way.

Reading: Tattoo Machine: Tall Tales, True Stories, and My Life in Ink by Jeff Johnson. This book has a brilliantly colorful quote that demonstrates the use of tattoo industry slang. Terms indicated in italics:

“Dude, it was a Dee Dee on speed dial unholy bloodbath. No pork chops, a mid-shift seismic California bumper sticker taco valve explosion, a fucking parade of drunks brimming with Chud potential and I ran out of boy butter after the second fight in the lobby. Bonus hole city to boot.”

Also reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Found: that mouse we were “over” last week...by way of our olfactory senses 😦

Mystery: there seems to be evidence of something large bedding down by our fence. Could be animal or human due to our location.

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Listening to: 

Things of the Week 8/3/16

Writers Being Writers: fave quotes from An Interview with Annie Dewitt by Brandon Hobson, 7/25/16 on The Believer Logger 

“I think it’s important to talk about the reality of being a writer. The glossy author photos don’t really speak to that. To the sacrifices that are made. And the times when you watch your family and friends who have chosen other paths make money, get married, move up and out in the world, have kids. You wonder what direction your life is truly going in and have to grapple with some difficult choices, all without knowing whether or not you’ll succeed. That’s, to date, the hardest thing I’ve had to face. My own self-doubt. ” – Annie Dewitt

“I’ve always admired how writers like Schutt and Salinger accomplish so much through the use of the unsaid. As a child, you have so little of the world explained to you. Your perception of events colors everything. So much of what you know is defined by the perimeter of what you don’t know, which is always expanding.” – Annie Dewitt

Reading: Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion by Alain de Botton

Rereading: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (thanks, Chelsea Clinton)

Nature: while walking by a city park near downtown I saw not one but three hawks hanging out behind the bleachers near the high school. They sat on the chainlink fence and watched as the crows picked over scraps. Whenever the crows found something good, like bullies the hawks dove and chased the crows until the crows gave up their lunch money.

Having My Mind Blown: “From Tree to Shining Tree” a podcast by Radiolab, July 30, 2016

Current Obsessions: my local library, evening walks, drinking water, ice cream (any number of flavors)

I’m kinda over it: the mouse we saw in the house a few days ago, despite many mice-preventing tactics currently underway

Bingeing: Gilmore Girls (3rd time), this time with my husband and in preparation for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Pompey’s Pillar: Visited Pompey’s Pillar National Monument for the first time, and during Clark Days, a miniature festival celebrating Montana history. I was maybe a little underwhelmed at the pillar’s size, but the graffiti courtesy of Lewis and Clark was pretty cool.

 

Brain Injury Accessory of the Week: earplugs

 

 

Things of the Week 7/13/16

Word Count: 723 in one sitting. A new high score since the brain injury.

Walking: “Walking While Black: Garnette Cadogan on the Realities of Being Black in America” by Garnette Cadogan, July 8, 2016 on Literary Hub. 

Gardening: We were a little late to start the garden this year, but better late than never. Purchasing plants in July leaves few varieties to choose from but we were able to pick up some tomatoes, bell peppers, El Jefe peppers, basil, lemon verbena, blackberries, and zucchini.

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Current Obsessions: coconut anything, eating two flavors of ice cream at once, vocabulary.com,

Poetry: Snare drums sound like school’s start

Slang: While doing research for my second novel I discovered the following:

Tattoo slang, like most other kinds of slang, also varies greatly based on region. In a TIME interview of Portland tattoo artist Jeff Johnson, Johnson states that many individual tattoo shops and artists have their own slang terms that wouldn’t be understood outside their particular shops.

Joy: Creating slang for a tattoo shop has become my new writing exercise.

Catching Up On: Castle

First Time: Making an herb wreath. I felt very Martha-Stewarty while completing the task. Next time though I’ll take an anti-histamine before I begin.

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Fun Brain Injury Side Effect: transposing words that sound the same and are also frequently used in my vocabulary. EXAMPLE: Yoga, stop eating that. TRANSLATION: Nova (the dog), stop eating that. Repetition for the sake of correction only leads to reuse of the incorrect word. EXAMPLE: Yoga, Yoga, Yoga! Leave it.

The Magical Twitterverse

According to my Twitter profile, I joined the social networking platform in 2009, but it wasn’t until the last month or so that I really began to embrace Twitter. I got tired of the recycled content on my Facebook feed (I’m looking at you TIME Magazine. I can’t count the number of times I’ve logged in to see that article delineating the 14 reasons why I’m so tired all the time. Here’s reason #15: I’m tired all the time because I see duplicative content on my newsfeed.)

The other reason I started to engage more frequently with Twitter was the various recommendations I saw around the web that Twitter is THE PLATFORM for writers. Then, I came across this bit of wisdom (in a Pinterest newsletter, I think, which I regretfully can’t find at the moment. Feel free to link to this insight in the comments if you’ve read/seen it somewhere else) about social media. Facebook is about the past. Twitter is about the present. Pinterest is about the future. I’m all about being in the present so Twitter seems like the natural choice.

I started tweeting more frequently and quickly discovered the magic in Twitter: the hashtag. Not just any clever hashtag, the ones that other people are using. My first tweet where I really felt like I was starting to “get” how the whole Twitter-thing worked was when I found a hashtag that didn’t mean what I thought it meant, and then I tweeted about it:

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I can’t tell you what kind of rockstar I felt like when I had one friend and four strangers favorite this tweet. On Facebook I rarely (okay, never) interacted with people I didn’t know. But on Twitter I was having light, micro-conversations with people the way you might strike up a conversation with someone on a plane or in a coffee shop.

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Twitter also helped me remember that social media can be fun. I squee when someone who I think is moderately famous favorites one of my replies. I chortle when people live tweet #TheBachelor or dish out clever responses to #FiveWordsToRuinADate. I get a tiny boost of self confidence when I buy a new pair of glasses and the company I purchased them from throws a compliment my way.

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The hashtag thing also helped connect me to my field, my people. I discovered #amwriting. There are many opinions about whether or not this is a helpful or distracting hashtag for writers but for me it makes me feel like I’m back in my low-res MFA  connecting with writers all over the country (and maybe the world) around a common goal. It makes an arguably lonely profession feel less lonely.

#amwriting led to #PitMad where I found that I could pitch my novel to literary agents and that they might actually respond. Consider my mind blown. I’m still dazed from the magical high that is #PitMad so I’ll virtually introduce you to Brenda Drake, host of #PitMad and other wonderful things, and let you read up on what it is/how to participate in the future.  Also, I want to link to Diana Urban who is an author that got her agent through #PitMad and has some great tips on how to write your tweets.

While participating in #PitMad was an amazing opportunity professionally, I liked it just as much because I got to “meet” so many writers. And seeing the goodwill of writers retweeting one another’s pitches and wishing each other luck just reminded me that the publishing industry is not as mean, or scary, or terrible as some people would like you to believe.

Participating in #PitMad also helped me to be a better writer. I’ve heard many a writing mentor say that if you can’t distill your novel down into one sentence then maybe the novel is not as tight as it should be. Having to generate 24 tweets about my novel forced me to use my skills as a writer to convey a large idea and hundreds of pages into one small, compelling sentence. Even if I’m not tweeting about my novel, the social pressure on Twitter to be funny, witty, or have something meaningful to say is like a writing exercise all on its own.

Of course, the most important writing I do is when I’m putting down words on the next novel or short story, but in an age where many writers are the advocates of their own work, it’s nice to know that I can spend time on social media in a productive and fruitful way.

Here are few of my favorite people/companies/parodies to follow. And obvi, if you want to join the fun, follow me!

  • Hayes Brown: @HayesBrown. Foreign News Editor/Reporter, @BuzzFeed. Formerly at @thinkprogress. RTs = multiple Russias Today. Thoughts all mine. Tips, etc: hayes.brown AT buzzfeed dot com
  • Neil Gaiman: @neilhimself. will eventually grow up and get a real job. Until then, will keep making things up and writing them down.
  • Roxane Gay: @rgay. I write. I want a tiny baby elephant. I love Ina Garten. Now: An Untamed State (Grove Atlantic) and Bad Feminist (Harper). Next: Hunger (Harper, 2016)
  • Linda Holmes:@nprmonkeysee. Writer at NPR’s pop culture blog, Monkey See; host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. Formerly of Television Without Pity.
  • Glen Weldon: @ghwelcon. Writes/podcasts for NPR and other places. Unauthor, SUPERMAN: THE UNAUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY. Author of THE CAPED CRUSADE, coming 2016 from Simon & Schuster.
  • Barry Allen Facts: @BanterWithBarry. Barry Allen parody account! Not associated with the The Flash.
  • inbox tattoos: @getinkbox. A New Way to Tattoo. Natural ink-based tattoos that last 12-15 days. Check out our tats on our website below!
  • Saved You A Click: @SavedYouAClick. Don’t click on that. I already did. (Tweets by @jakebeckman)
  • Warby Parker: @WarbyParker. Welcome to Warby Parker! (Pleased to meet you.) Questions? Let @WarbyParkerHelp know.

My Tools for Writing: Reprise

A while ago I wrote about my favorite programs/implements for writing efficiently, but I neglected to mention my most important tool: my laptop.

It didn’t seem worth mentioning because it’s an obvious tool. Most writers have some sort of computer or tablet  for writing. My own laptop faded into mundanity because I used it for everything; it wasn’t special anymore.

Until one day, thinking my computer was moving slow (I had taken to calling it “the dinosaur”), I watched the clock in the top right hand corner of my screen while waiting for Microsoft Word to open. Four minutes passed.

"Dinosaur Jr." by Stéfan via Flickr
“Dinosaur Jr.” by Stéfan via Flickr

I realized then that without much awareness, I had been building mini-accomplishments into my day to make those four minutes pass. Open a document/make a cup of tea. Send a file to print/take the laundry out of the dryer. Download an update/take the dog for a walk. I felt productive because I was multitasking but really, I was wasting a lot (3 minutes and 52 seconds) of time. I needed a new laptop. Continue reading “My Tools for Writing: Reprise”

How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner

photo 1I’ve reached an age where, because I don’t have any children, I’m picking up “adult hobbies.” I blame this too on the fact that I own a house now* and feel like, you know, I should probably take care of it. So, I’ve started gardening.

Last weekend I stepped into my yard to assess my hard work. The black-eyed Susans are blooming, so is the lavender, and the mint is out of control. The bee balm is bowing out of the mint’s way. The valerian root is trying to stand out amongst the weeds. The lilac bushes are holding their own, though one branch has given up. The pansies are fickle and wilt at a minute’s worth of too much sun, yet the second I flood them, they’ll perk up as if nothing was wrong. The pansies are acting like, well, pansies.

I realized there are probably a hundred metaphors or lessons on life in my garden. As I stepped close to examine leaves then stepped back to take in the whole plant or bush, I saw that the process of taking care of plants is much like the process of being a writer. Continue reading “How Being a Writer is Like Being a Gardner”

The Last Word

"The End” by  Bob Marzewski via Flickr used under a creative commons license.
“The End” by Bob Marzewski via Flickr used under a creative commons license.

On a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour the crew discussed first impressions in movies, books, films and TV. Panelist Glen Weldon gave some of his favorite opening lines in books then went on to create this comprehensive list of opening lines.

Coming to the end of the rewrite on my own novel, I find myself contemplating endings rather than beginnings, and I have another writerly confession to make: I judge a book by its last word, which I read first.

Before you lay judgement, things that I know:

A) This is a ludicrous habit.

B) The likelihood that an entire book could be encapsulated by only the last word, when considering the numerous books in existence, is outrageously and implausibly small.

And you might wonder how I can peek at the last word without spoiling the ending.  My ability to flip to the last page and peek, only taking in that last word, maybe two, has been fostered by years of looking at scary movies through fingers, ready to close the gap in a nanosecond lest I see a wayward severed head. Continue reading “The Last Word”