Coincidences, Connections, the Cosmos

A week ago, I returned from my first AWP Conference, a massive writing and publishing event, which took place this year in Washington, DC. While there, I found out that a triple celestial confluence had occurred: a simultaneous full moon, lunar eclipse and comet appeared in the sky that Friday night, which, despite my reticence to accept such woo-woo reasoning, may help explain why so many poignant connections occurred.

img_7456I knew that my former-MFA professor/now-friend Suzanne would be attending, but I had no idea she would be on the same plane until we ran into each other while boarding. We gaped at each other happily upon the discovery. Southwest Airline’s sometimes-annoying lack of seat reservations paid off this time, as we were able to sit together and go through all the panels and readings and author-signings that we wanted to attend, surely annoying the guy in the aisle seat who had hoped for a quiet nap. Like two kids salivating over 101 delightful Baskin Robbins flavors of ice cream and able to choose just a few, we talked through the many sessions and presenters, while she gave me tips and insights and encouragement.

Because we had run into each other this way, it also meant we were able to find our way by bus, train and Metro together, check in at registration with each other and even share an Uber. In between these stops, like teenagers, we took numerous selfies, giggled and posted them. An excited, yet nervous, first-time AWPer, flyer and navigator, I was deeply reassured by the surprise gift of my lovely silver-haired mentor to keep me company the entire way. Though we joked we should never travel without each other again, we knew our return plans differed.

At the three-day conference, I met for the first time in person the guy I’ve interned with for over a year, reconnected with professors from grad school, ran into a friend’s daughter I hadn’t seen in years, caught up with her mom and another local friend I didn’t know would be there. I sat through many sessions presented by writers I admired whom I had only imagined living on pages, not in real life. I said “thank you!” to an editor from the first journal to publish my work and “hello!” many others who swore they needed more nonfiction submissions (even though I’m sure they were just being nice to me).

img_7504I had the great fortune of meeting (nervously and sweatily, after pumping myself up like a boxer entering a ring) Jill Bialosky and Roger Rosenblatt, two of my literary heroes who had penned memoirs about loss that meant a great deal to me as I worked on my manuscript about losing my brother. I look up to both like they are rock stars, and both were so kind to me that I was in tears after our brief encounters.

A third writer in the same camp was brought to my attention by my roommate for the weekend, who had attended a panel I missed. “You HAVE to have his book,” Heidi said, “I’m going to buy it for you.” She practically dragged me to the Trinity University Press table to pick up a copy of Kim Stafford’s book about his brother’s death.

img_7505In the middle of the enormous book fair, I glanced down at one exhibitor’s table (one of 800) and my eyes landed on a book by a woman I used to be in a writing group with, aptly titled, What is Amazing. Exhausted, I slumped in a chair at a table covered with dozens of bookmarks, brochures, and postcards from journals, schools and publishers. Out popped one with a quote about Barton Springs at the very same moment my friend in Austin texted me out of the blue. Wow!! What a coincidence! We’ll be plunging in next month! She wrote when I told her.

Then I received an email from a former boss about some freelance work she had thrown my way because she is currently going through chemo. I ended my note back to her: are you doing OK, considering? I’m thinking about you… And she responded: Yes! I’ve been reading Suzanne Strempek Shea’s book about her breast cancer journey. I looked up from my iPhone, wide-eyed. You just gave me chills. She is sitting across from me right now. She calmly typed back: The universe connects us in common and meaningful ways…

Late Saturday, I dragged my suitcase, laptop and conference bag — weighed down with purchased books — to the Metro stop at the convention center, heading home tired and a little sad, but chock full of inspiration. Alone, I reflected on the many amazing moments, the happenstances, the things that occurred seemingly for no reason, or because, you know, The Universe.

When I presented my ID at Union Station, the clerk selling me a ticket paused. “Pinkerton?” She said. “I’ve never heard that name before, but that’s a character on my daughter’s reading app.” For the next ten minutes, she searched for it while we chatted, the wifi connection sluggish on her iPhone underground. I was glad for the connection, and for the new app “Endless Reader,” to recommend to my friends with kids.

I trudged down the platform of the train station, past car after car of the seemingly endless train, finally settling into a seat and getting out my own phone, looking for the app, then checking email. There was one from Suzanne from the other day, I’ll never forget our adventure of arriving… I began to type back, Traveling with you was the BEST! It’s not that thrilling finding my way back alone… And moments later I heard a voice from behind me, “Anne? Is that you?”

Due to an impending snowstorm, Suzanne had changed her plane reservation to the one I just happened to be taking. She had also taken the same train. And walked into the same car. And sat right behind me.

Four days later – trying to keep my AWP glow on – I had dinner with Melanie Brooks before she did a reading in town for her new book called Writing Hard Stories, a collection she penned while working on her own memoir. Between bites of salad, she said, “You absolutely HAVE to read Kim Stafford’s book.”

Radical Self-Care

640px-Three_flat_sheetsThe amazing Anne Lamott has often referred to what she calls “radical self-care” in her writing, which she defines as water and clean sheets. In doing so, she reminds us, and perhaps herself, that even the very small things make life that much more livable; hydration and a nice bed do indeed go a long way.

These things sound so basic that it’s hard to define them as radical, at least to those of us privileged to have easy access to drinking water and a washing machine. Yet, perhaps that is the point—at least on some level—and perhaps, because she clearly knows how hard life can be, she is also reminding us that these “basic” things are “radical” in the worst of times.

I’ve taken this concept a bit further in my life lately. My radical self-care includes doing a few yoga sunbows upon waking, reading good books in bed on clean sheets, and, most drastically, massage.

I am far from rich, and in fact have precious little disposable income at the moment—though this idea of radical self-care does sometimes require a little dosh. That’s where the local massage school comes in. For only $30, a kind student will provide a quality rubdown during a clinic in order to earn necessary hours of training, hands-on in the most literal way.

Today, I checked in with several other people, grabbed a sheet from a multi-colored stack at the desk, per the usual weird process, and waited to be called. After a few minutes, a young woman dressed in black, skinny with a long dark ponytail and Coke-bottle-thick glasses, introduced herself to me as Ashley. It was hard to focus on her eyes as we spoke because the lenses were so concentrated.

After she and I briefly discussed the kind of pressure I like (a lot) and if there were trouble-areas (neck and shoulders), she waited for me outside a changing room where I wrapped the sheet around me like a loose purple toga. Ashley settled me, facedown, on one of a dozen massage tables in a high-ceilinged room. The only lighting was natural, coming in from the tall windows on two sides of the room, a pale and grey like the day outside.

Once my face was in its cradle and she started warming up my back by running her oiled hands up and down it, I stared at the floor dumbly, my mouth ajar, remembering how I had become so relaxed during a massage one time that I actually drooled. The brick building in which the school is housed is clearly old, maybe turn of the century, which I pondered as I studied a rectangular-headed nail popping up slightly in one of the wood slats of the floor.

From time to time, I closed my eyes and tried to push away the thoughts in my head and focus on the lovely way Ashley was carefully kneading the knots in my back. But often I watched her feet, clad in lime green not-socks, moving around me almost balletically. She seemed as through she were doing a plié as she ever-so-gently pushed her elbow under my shoulder-blade. I listened to the quiet rustling of other clients’ sheets and students whispering questions comingled with the quiet whir of a fan somewhere I couldn’t quite place and inoffensive New Age music playing on a boom box on a window sill to my left.

At some point, a Nick Drake song came on, surprising me. It was a tune I love and listening to it was a good distraction from the noise in my mind. Ashley gently had me flip over discreetly under the purple sheet and wrapped an eye-cover over my face, blocking out that sense for a while, expertly she was rubbing my legs, which rarely cause me any trouble, and therefore, I rarely pay any attention to. She made lovely circles around my anklebones and paid special attention to my knees as well as working out kinks in my calf muscles and thighs.

“Take your time sitting up,” she said nicely when the hour was up. “I’m going to get you a cup of water.”

“Thank you,” I muttered, sleepily, beginning to work the sheet around me again.

“How do you feel?” Ashley asked.

“Mmm, relaxed and, um, better,” I barely managed.

“That’s what I want to hear!” she said brightly.

As sat up and drank out of a Dixie cup while she smiled at me through her enormous lenses, her blue eyes looking as though they were submerged behind deep ripples, I realized this was simply the deluxe version of even Anne Lamott’s sense of radical self-care—both water and clean sheets having played integral roles.

Sometimes, it’s blueberry pancakes at the diner. Or a cold beer on a sweaty day, drunk on the porch with a dear friend. Whatever it is, this idea seems more and more essential to me all the time. No one else will do it for us, so enjoy your water and clean sheets, friends, and enjoy the moments, the sensations, the little stuff that is such big stuff sometimes. Take radical self-care.

On Finishing (and Not Finishing)

13083376_10208025110598318_8559129665999619841_nI’m not finished with grad school, though this is technically my final submission. So I guess I’m pretty damn close. Yikes.

I already turned in my thesis and even sent it to print. I have a reading and a party on Friday followed by a champagne toast the following Friday and official graduation the Saturday after. Yet, I’ve firmly established that I won’t be finished with grad school projects until the end of May. I accepted the task of copyediting a full-length manuscript late in my publishing internship in part because it would drag on past graduation, not despite that fact. I could easily have said no. The truth is, I don’t want it to end.

Not the internship, not the publishing class associated with it, not the thesis work, not the writing prompts, not the extensive reading, not the due dates, not the discussions, not the presentations, not the research, not the interviews, not the hours and hours and hours of revisions, not even the true suffering that was part and parcel of my memoir writing.

I’m downright existentially exhausted. Part of me wants a serious vacation—or at least a really extended nap—right now. Completing edits and organization and formatting to my thesis over the past two weeks made me want to throw it all into a fire a few times. Tears were shed when my laptop’s hard drive crashed the week before that. And the self-imposed pressure of submitting a newly revised piece to a journal just-under-the-wire-close-to-midnight-on-Sunday-right-before-they-closed-acceptances-for-the-season made me question my sanity and overblown sense of self worth. But the reality is that I just don’t want to be finished at all.

The MFA program has been stressful: I’ve felt alternately really dumb and kind of smart, disappointed and elated, like a hot mess and an organizational genius. I’ve lost sleep and haven’t seen friends, skipped out on parties and ordered take-out far too much. I’ve drunk a lot of wine. I’ve worried nearly constantly that I was missing some kind of deadline and that I was probably a fraud. I miss my husband, whom I haven’t seen enough of even though he’s right downstairs. My laundry has piled up and the lack of vacuuming has generated furry tumbleweeds in all the corners of my house. My dogs definitely did not get enough walks (or belly rubs—or snacks, they tell me).

But I’ve learned that no one else really cares about my dust and that the dogs will forgive me for the lack of walks, like they forgive everything, saints that they are. I’ve also learned to be pretty fantastic at juggling and that when I want something, I can make it happen. I’ve learned so, so much about writing that I can’t even put it into words, which demonstrates how much I haven’t learned about writing.

When people, witnessing me practically tearing out my hair, have said of the program, “Oh, I bet you can’t wait to be done!” I have replied, “Well, sort of, but I love it,” reaffirming what a truly deranged person I am.

Though I like to think of myself as a planner, I’ve started dragging my feet on the final projects—like this one, which, as of this writing, is due in two hours and twenty minutes, but who’s counting?

Suddenly, I find myself frantically thinking about everyone I’ve met because of this program and giving myself further to-dos: writing thank you notes, buying books for presents, tracking down secondary email addresses. I am scared of being finished because it means disconnection. I’ve lived long enough and had enough experiences to know that what I’ll miss is the community of people. There’s nothing quite like finding your tribe. So, of course I don’t want it disbanded.

This is part of why the Writer’s Contract we had to pen now makes such good sense. I promised to myself, my teacher and my classmates that I will not actually be finished—that this work will go on, and that the connections will survive. I will write at for least an hour five days a week. I will submit work to journals at least once a month. I will workshop a piece with my small sub-set of classmates once a quarter. I will continue my search for an agent.

When do I make the shift from graduate work into this post-graduate self-disciplined technically accountable-to-no-one stuff? Tomorrow? Next week? June?

I fear I will wake up the morning after graduation—and then the morning after that one last copy-editing project is turned in—and wonder what to do with myself. I fear I will feel terribly alone.

It’s why, even thought this piece is due by midnight tonight and I’m very tired, I ran out after an all-too-quick dinner with my husband to attend a reading by a professor. Because I knew it would feel so great to be in a bookstore and to hear stories and to buy books and to be hugged by people who know me and get me. Because I don’t want to be finished.

If there is a finish line, in this case, I don’t care to cross it. I want to continue running in a way I never have before. I’ve never felt so sure that what I started shouldn’t stop.


Language Obsessed

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 7.20.52 PMKyle Semmel
, who goes by K. E. Semmel professionally, is the kind of guy who works to make other people look good. I get him, as this is very much the way I’ve often felt about myself and my day job, where I scrutinize projects to make someone else shine while I stand in the background. It’s not actually as martyr-like as it sounds. In fact, I think we both prefer it this way.

Kyle spent years working in nonprofit marketing and communications just as I have, so I know this role requires ensuring that places, people, products, etc. are presented in the best possible light. People like us stoop over computers in dark rooms creating materials for others to present. People like us give them their messaging, edit their letters, design their elevator pitches, write their brochures. People like us shape and polish the rough ideas of others. It’s not so different when you think about what editors do.

Kyle met Andrew Gifford, the founder and director of the Santa Fe Writers Project (SFWP), when they were both working at the American Psychological Association in Washington, DC. Due to their shared love of literature and similar tastes and goals, they “really hit it off.” Kyle has been involved with the press since its early days as a development editor, and has enjoyed watching it grow—albeit from the wings while Andrew stands in the spotlight.

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 7.19.13 PMHe has also taught fiction, written and published—in the Ontario Review, Washington Post, World Literature Today, Southern Review, Subtropics and elsewhere—and become a freelance translator. To date, Kyle has translated eight books from Danish and Norwegian (and is working on his ninth). Most recently published is Jesper Bugge Kold’s Winter Men.

Because I saw that he has a BA in history and English from Edinboro University in Pennsylvania and an MA in English from Kansas State University, I asked when and how he learned these other languages. I figured he must have Danish and Norwegian grandparents or something. It wasn’t that direct.

“My relationship to Danish and Norwegian actually began with German,” Kyle said.“I learned German because I love German and I did study it in college, though I don’t hold a degree in it. I met my wife in graduate school, and she is Danish, and when we finished our degrees, we moved to Denmark and lived there for three years. I took formal training in Danish for six months and have continued to study Danish ever since as a translator.”

“Because I’d studied German, Danish (which shares many traits) came quite easily to me,” he continued. “Since Norwegian is very similar to Danish, it is actually easy for me to read it and therefore translate it.” This we don’t have in common. Am I the only one who can’t quite imagine this being so fluid and easy?

Kyle’s work at SFWP has involved everything from helping get the press off the ground at the beginning to reviewing and editing submissions to managing the journal—and turning it into a quarterly publication—to starting ”Translator’s Cut,” an interview series with other translators. But, he said, “I feel it’s time to step back—which is why I asked Melanie to take over,” telling me about the new editor of the Quarterly. “She’s got great ideas and it’s simply time to move on. That said, I will continue to support SFWP and always will, and that includes copy editing, etc.”

While his teaching and writing have been helpful, he credits his translation work as “probably the very best training for doing any editorial work. Every time I submit a translation, I go through an editorial process, and that is a grand education in how to read/edit a manuscript. The greatest possible training for any editor is to be edited intensely and often, as I have,” he said.

Although he’s very happy to call himself a full-time writer and translator now, Kyle confessed to me that he will likely end up back in communications long-term, which he loved, as I do. I was pleased when he told me that my recommendations and best practice tips for social media were helpful to him since he’s been out of the fray for a while. He admitted, “I’m waaay behind the curve on new trends.”

Surprises in Interning

640px-Blue_Gass_Dove,_Romisch-Germanisches_Museum,_Cologne_(14873530361)After giving three fairly firm thumbs down, I waffled about how to respond to a fourth fiction submission I was assigned to review for the Santa Fe Writers Project Quarterly. With no experience as an editor or fiction writer, a limited view of what the journal had previously published and being very new in my role as intern, I didn’t entirely trust my own reactions.

Besides, when I started the internship, I assumed I would be working through some terrible slush pile, where the likelihood of coming across anything worthwhile would be incredibly slim. So my first surprise was reading something pretty good.

The writer drew me in so nicely. She wrote beautifully constructed sentences painting a portrait of a Bolivian community in the States, as colorful as one might expect, replete with lively parties, traditional cuisine, a big Catholic funeral, and boisterous extended families. She introduced me to the men of the neighborhood as an interesting collective group and made me fall in love with a particular woman named Betty who, after a few pages, I wanted as my own best friend.

Our heroine was white and from a completely different upbringing. She was lonely and looking for both a partner and a place to call her own. Compelling story. Her scenes she were entertaining and compelling, and gave the inside view a reader loves to have. I felt part of the action and that this writer was taking good care of me while her identity evolved to embrace the idea she was “Bolivian in her soul.”

Until the ending. It was pat and unconvincing. That was my second surprise – not a good one.

Full disclosure: I have problems with endings in general. I would wager that more than half of vetted, published, adored pieces of writing leave me cold at the end. Movies and TV series do the same. But I still found myself inordinately disappointed.

I was tempted to recommend a straight pass because I was so put off. But I remembered that the Quarterly had published her before, which meant she had something they liked, and the fact that I wanted so much to like the whole piece made me consider it further. Being so sensitive and sympathetic to both publisher and writer, when I found the story intriguing until the last page, I re-read it before I made any notes or recommendations.

I finally told the editor everything I was thinking and asked if we might discuss the ending with the author and see if there was a possibility of working with her on it a bit. My third surprise was that he was not only entirely willing to do that, but he also wanted me to make the overture.

“But do I say I’m an intern? An MFA student? A volunteer?” I asked Kyle. “That sounds sort of, I don’t know, not very good,” I said, demonstrating both my lack of confidence and probably making him second-guess my own writing abilities.

“Say you are a reader and that you are writing on behalf of the editor,” he replied helpfully. “Then we’ll see how she responds.”

So I reached out to the author of the lovely story called “Blue Dove.” My fourth surprise was her speedy, gracious and helpful response, replete with a possible alternate ending. As a writer who has been submitting work and filing away flat rejections, I could appreciate that someone (even a lowly reader/MFA student/intern/volunteer) giving her feedback and accolades felt good. But I had initially thought it was equally possible she would say “forget it.”

Then I got stuck again because I didn’t exactly love the new ending. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t sure. So I threw it back to Kyle, who told me my correspondence with the author had been excellent, which was deeply reassuring, and that he felt we should pass on the piece while encouraging her to keep submitting. He asked if I would like to tell her. This time, I asked him to do it, but to BCC me on it so that I could learn from him how he writes these things. (Also, I wouldn’t have to be the actual bad guy. Cop out, I know.)

And then yesterday, instead of emailing me that note, he emailed to tell me a new editor is taking over the Quarterly, who feels the piece is a go with the new ending, and I have been asked to edit it for publication! What an exciting fifth surprise.


Photo: By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Blue Glass Dove, Romisch-Germanisches Museum, Cologne, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Story Ideas from a Cat

One of the several writing-related blogs, newsletters and mailing lists I subscribe to sent me an email this week with the title, “Story Ideas from a Cat,” and I immediately thought, That’s so perfect for me, because I am a mini-crazy-cat-lady. My mother is the real deal, as she has seven or eight cats most of the time—depending on how she’s counting on the day you ask—so it’s kind of a genetic problem, but that’s another story. I have four cats. Plenty of material there.

This morning, I was sleeping soundly with my part-Bengal cat, Quincy, tucked warmly next to me on my right side, as usual. He’s the most Zen and genuinely nicest cat I’ve ever known, as he will sit placidly and observe the roaring vacuum cleaner with only mild curiosity while all the other animals in the house scatter like the sky is falling, and, importantly, he picks fights with no one ever. Even the always-happy white and black (not black and white) cat, Levon, who has the word “love” in his name somewhere, still picks on Jasper, the most senior cat, which makes him sound old or old-acting, which he isn’t—and doesn’t—at all. It’s just that he’s the most solitary, a loner even, and something about that annoys Levon the Lover, who truly loves everyone, even Jasper, except when he doesn’t.

10848894_10204339050209112_900344771494291822_oAnyway, I woke up because the baby of the family, Desi, who is just two years old, was walking all over me (as he does in every possible literal and figurative way), purring his brains out, tickling my face with his whiskers, and shoveling his little fuzzy head under my hand, trying to force me into petting him, even in my unconscious state. Once conscious, even semi-so, I did my usual cranky shove and knocked him off the bed.

This technique is so completely ineffective that doing it in even a semi-unconscious state is fairly unforgivable. It’s like that definition of insanity everyone likes to repeat all the time—as if you needed someone to remind you that are making yourself crazy when it is perfectly clear—except when it isn’t. Desi is a lot like one of those inflatable doll things that stands up by force of a weight in its base and that, if punched, pops right back up over and over and over. It seems to me these dolls are always grinning in a kind of manic way too, just to be extra maddening. I realize this is sounding rather violent, and it really isn’t, but you don’t know Desi AKA Shit Burger, which is supposed to be a cute nickname, but really defines his personality in a way that his sophisticated moniker, Desmond, really can’t.

11886139_10206297566970807_2908449272992223500_oWhen I adopted him, his shelter name was Gator, a sign I chose to ignore. Instead, I focused on his gorgeous, jet-black mane, cartoonishly fluffy pantaloons, and tail so oversized that, attached to his otherwise stuntedly small body, makes him look a lot like a black squirrel. He’s a truly beautiful cat. Desi topped out at eight and a half pounds, so he’s what my husband and I call a “perma-kitten,” so light that he makes his big brothers seem enormous even though they are totally average. His feathery and feather-weight body make him incredibly tantalizing to hold and pet and kiss, which he then rewards with lightning-fast bites.

So I pushed him off the bed and he popped back up nearly instantaneously like one of those stupid grinning inflatable punching dolls, purring furiously and again pushing his small glamorously silky head under my trying-to-sleep hand. Because I never learn, I attempted one more sleep push. I’m sure you can’t imagine what happened.

Desi also lives to pick on Quincy, which is unacceptable for the aforementioned reasons, but it’s also completely predictable. So next, as part of the customary ritual, Desi started licking Quincy just long enough for Quincy to relax into thinking this might be a kind, brotherly gesture, despite the way these things always go, and then, like a cobra, Desi struck him with his perfect clean white fangs.

Did I mention it was before 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday?

Cursing my superficial tendencies for the thousandth time, I got up and removed Desi from the bedroom and closed the door, still knowing, yet ignoring the knowledge, that this was a sheer temporary measure. Desi is like that person who keeps poking your leg over and saying, “Hey, hey, hey” over until you crack and yell, “WHAT??!”

After a short spell, where I began to drift back into a dream, I started to hear a little scratching and saw a plush black paw reaching under the door. Then it began in earnest:

Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow

11792040_10206212010551950_5749560414556876074_oYou can’t outlast Desi; he will always win. One time I tried to ignore him for almost an hour, during which I felt sure he would eventually pass out from his efforts. He meows with no pause. I don’t know when he even takes a breath. It’s quite something to behold.

There’s only so much ignoring a person has in them. I’ve tried. I’ve really tried. I’ve put in earplugs, smooshed a pillow onto my head, moved him to a downstairs room, put on white noise on my phone, given him a toy, food, catnip (foolishly). Everything short of a heavy-duty sedative. He is the definition of incorrigible.

One time, my mother told me she had mentioned Desi’s abundance of energy (isn’t that a nice way of putting it?) to her vet, who recommended that, in order to wear him out enough so that he was too tired to bother me, I get him ANOTHER KITTEN.

He got a robot playmate instead, recommended by MY VET, who does not cave in to that kind of crazy-cat-lady-stuff. It’s called a Froli-Cat and it shines red lasers in two directions that move in erratic half-circles while the inner workings of the machine grunt and whirl. Desi loved it at first, but we had to keep replacing the batteries because he would play so long that the damn robot got tired.

We blow catnip scented bubbles, pull around strings, give him plastic balls and bells and crumpled up foil, and pet the other cats a lot after Desi chases them down the stairs—and up the stairs—and down the stairs—and then pounces on them like a wild cheetah. He’s a pint-sized adversary. Any one of them could kick his furry butt, yet they don’t, and I do appreciate them for that.

12642592_10207326550774759_7399527752247732543_nDesi jumps up onto the top of doors and cabinets, where he hangs out, leering at us in a superior way, from above. His giant green judging eyes are sometimes the only discernable feature. He loves to tightrope walk the banister above the stairs. He leaps over his brothers on the way to breakfast each morning like an acrobat. He’s bossy, he’s funny, he’s fearless, he’s got a violent streak. He’s not one of those cats that just sits in a sunny spot all day. He’s never dull.

So, it’s Sunday morning and I’m awake far too early. Desi really doesn’t give a shit that it’s my one day this week to sleep in and I am far from rested. He generally doesn’t give a shit about anything.

I go back to the original email I received from one of those writerly, inspiring places, which I initially failed to read beyond the subject line, and realize that it says, “Sometimes the best way to get story ideas is to think from another point of view—like that of a cat. And there is no better way to get into the mind of your characters than to become like them.”

This assures me, for the millionth time, that I have no business writing from anyone’s point of view other than my own regardless of how desperate I am for a story idea. I am most definitely not going to walk on people, force them to pet me, and then bite them. That’s some kind of sick S & M stuff I want no part of.

Book Trailers

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.51.44 PMToday, while reading my Shelf Awareness e-newsletter, a publishing industry mailer, I was reminded of a literary promotional concept that is wildly intriguing to me, and which I somehow didn’t discover until very recently: the book trailer.

I’m a marketing person by day, and I’m now in a position where I have to conceptualize and direct videos, which is a totally new channel for me. Videos are enormously popular online and are gaining momentum all the time. But I never would have considered the possibility of creating a promotional trailer, just like a movie trailer but for a book, on my own. It’s so odd! Books have no pictures or music like films do. Who says, “Go check out the video for my book on YouTube?” Lots of people, it turns out.

I saw one in the fall for the release of Kristin Hersh’s Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, a book about the musician Vic Chestnutt, and was riveted. She’s a musician first and published author second, so there is fantastic original music by her on it—a song she more than likely wrote about him, in fact—as well as tour photos of them together. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing her play in person many times, and, in recent performances, she’s interspersed her songs with readings from her books. We, the audience, sit around her sipping our beers and listening with as much focus as kindergarteners sitting Indian-style, sucking our thumbs, while riveted by our amazing teacher. So, anyway, I thought maybe this was something of an anomaly. Her book trailer is a lot like a music video, only with quotes from reviewers and a few brief synoptic notes interspersed with the photos.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 6.48.50 PMBut then I watched another one that was linked to Shelf Awareness with simply this introduction: “Book Trailer of the Day: One More Day, a novel by Kelly Simmons.” Enough said. You want to click it and check it out. I did, and I love this one too, even though it’s really different, as different as, say, oh, movie trailers. Hersh’s gives a lot of information about what you’ll read along with the mood music and great pictures. Simmons’ is almost all atmosphere, mysterious to the point of total confusion and/or complete intrigue. Beautifully cinematographic color images are collaged, portraying trees, driving, family photos and lots of baked goods. (What’s that all about?) One question in white text is broken up and overlaid on several screens. Then there are the wonderful reviewers’ quotes.

I think the only thing in common is that both take the opportunity to show the viewer the book cover, which makes a lot of sense, right? As teasers go, I think these are pretty fabulous. And so different from typical print ads or book reviews. They seem genius in this time of online living and attention spans short as gnats.’ Commit just two or three minutes to a fascinating watch, and there you go.

Of course, now I just want to go check out trailers on YouTube, never mind reading the books. Just kidding! Hersh’s was really great and everyone should go buy it right now.

Broadside Books

Broadside Books store frontAs an undergraduate creative writing student, I spent the majority of my disposable time and income at two independent stores in Northampton, Mass: Main Street Records and Broadside Books. I regularly took the Five College bus from Hampshire College into town and jumped off at the stop across the street from both for the sole purpose of spending time in these stacks and racks.

Hours were lost thumbing through records and craning my neck to the right to read the spines of books. I loved the smell of new paper and fresh ink, the hope of a brilliant new discovery. I made careful selections with my minimal cash, reading the back covers and first pages and maybe even a few middle pages of books, talking to the store staff about the latest and greatest new releases, placing special orders for items that weren’t in stock, reading posters and reviews. Sometimes, I came back at night for a reading by an author, where I sheepishly poured myself wine into a plastic cup and sat in a folding chair in the back row in awe. Or I listened to a singer-songwriter pour their heart out in front of an audience of twelve. It wasn’t just shopping; it was an entire cultural experience.

My now-husband and I moved to an apartment in Northampton after college, and we have always had an agreement that we will never give the other any grief about spending money on records or books, as we share a fundamental belief that a) you can never have too many of either, and b) they are the most worthy items to buy, as they give us as much nourishment as food. We continued to shop at Broadside Books, Main Street Records, The Globe Bookshop and Turn-it-Up! for all of our listening and reading desires. Then Amazon was born.

Suddenly, we could have any book or record we wanted shipped right to our front door for less money than buying it in town. The ability to search for hard-to-find albums and out–of-print titles, listen to clips and read passages right from the comfort of home made us lazy and comfortable. It wasn’t the same as browsing the stores, touching the hard covers or checking out the recommendations of staff we trusted, but it was great. So easy in our busy lives.

What happened next is that Main Street Records and The Globe shuttered their doors. They were just our local example of what Amazon (and Wal-Mart and Target) had done to independent stores all over the country. I felt personally responsible. And deeply sad.

It took a while, but I’m back to shopping at Broadside Books just as I’m back to writing being a primary focus. I always buy books there now, even ordering what isn’t on the shelves through their staff or their online system, waiting patiently for the friendly personal call that my title has come in, picking it up in person and paying a little bit more. That’s a luxury I can afford now and I feel good about helping, in my small way, to assure that a local independent shop stays in business.

I like to stop in when I have a free half hour and enjoy the smell of printing, the personal touch of a book seller guiding me to what I’m looking for, the discovery of titles I never would have found online. I often end up at the counter with twice as much as I came in for. My frequent-shopper card is getting stamped a lot. Soon, I’ll have earned $10 off a book—again.

It only pains me that I don’t get a second chance with Main Street Records.

Expectations & Interviewing

There’s something profoundly unnerving to me about reaching out to someone I don’t know and asking them to talk to me. Maybe it’s simple fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s because I spent the last year interviewing for jobs like it was my job. When you are talking to strangers and practically begging them to like you, to find you worthy and even desirable, knowing you are setting yourself up for possible (and even likely) rejection, it can make you a little neurotic.

When I reach out to a stranger and ask them to help me in some way, I feel tiny and nervous and undeserving. It was like this when, for an assignment in my MFA program, I recently emailed the managing editor of a publishing house to set up an interview.

Even though my professor had already done the hard work of talking to the press and doling out contact information to us, in preparation, I read the bio of the person I was to speak with, studied the titles that her publishing house had put out recently, Googled what it meant to be a managing editor, ran through interview questions with class and had my professor review my email request to Ms. Managing Editor, in which I mentioned that I happened to have a full-time job and be a full-time student at the same time and that it might be a teensy bit challenging to find a mutually beneficial time to talk. Or something more concise than that, I hope.

I received a response from my professor indicating that I should make this managing editor feel like the most important person in the room, which was totally fine and reasonable except that it made me worried that maybe she was too busy or important to be talking to me – because who am I? – or maybe that she was actually a horrible diva or a cruel person who would tell me I was a clown and wasting her time. Oh, and also, I had misspelled my professor’s name in the email. Classy.

The email I received back from the managing editor was friendly and accommodating. She said she’d be available a bunch of times I suggested and we were able to set up an appointment right away for just two days out. When the phone rang at the appointed time, I sweatily let it ring a couple of extra times so it didn’t seem as though I’d been anxiously staring at the phone for ten minutes with my questions in hand, and answered in my attempt to sound breezy, “Hi, this is Anne?” I always do this, sounding like I’m not sure it’s actually me, but rather as if I am asking the caller to reassure me that I am myself.

Forty-five minutes later, after only casually looking at my script here and there and letting the conversation unfold naturally, we were on a first name basis and laughing while I learned that a lot of the stuff I researched was wrong, at least for her specifically at this press. She was incredibly easy to talk to, patient with my questions and completely open to follow-up. She didn’t act in the least put out and provided me with incredibly interesting information. She was kind and engaging and supportive of me and the program. When I signed off, I said in all sincerity that it was a real pleasure talking with her. I believed her when she said the same in return.

I sent a quick ‘thank you’ email the next day to which she responded, “I’m glad I could help. Good luck with the rest of your semester.”

I keep having to remind myself that damn near everyone likes to talk about themselves. God knows I do. And that all you’re doing during an interview is having a scheduled conversation with a real person. Like most things in life, it is much easier with practice. And if they’re a jack ass, you can always walk out or hang up. But chances are, you won’t want to.

Running Head

mr. potato headThe term running head conjures odd images for me. Immediately, I think in literal terms of a cartoonish, disembodied human head with disproportionately small legs fleeing a scene. Maybe a little like Mr. Potato Head if he were really on the go, though in my mind’s eye, he is always just standing around.

Running head also makes me think of racing thoughts, a chronic condition I suffer from. It’s got an anxious angle, this term – it sounds like too much on the brain plus rushing, an equation for stress. That reaction tells you a bit about me.

The actual meaning is quite different. It’s downright calm and very helpful: Text at the top of a standard book page that usually contains book, chapter or section title information. So “running” simply refers to ongoing—as in, happening throughout a book—and “head” just describes the positioning on the page. As a part-time graphic designer, I’m surprised not to know this term already. I’ve always called it a page header! But I’ve only officially laid out one long-form book, and I just made it up as I went along. Because I’m creative. Translation: fraud.

Anyway. Terminology. Upon further research, running head has poetic possibilities. One book design site refers to the “atmosphere you can create with running heads.” I love this, as any designer would, because it implies (correctly) that the look and feel of a layout, including font face and size, spacing, margins, location of page numbers, etc. all have an impact on how the actual text comes across. They help shape the way the story is presented overall.

Running head also plays a critical role in orientation. A reader often puts down a book, with or without marking his or her spot, and has to figure out where they left off when they open it back up again. The running head tells them in which chapter they have landed and maybe the section and page number too, and could include the author’s name and/or book title as well (just for reinforcement, I guess). It’s all kind of like a little icon on a map saying: “You are here.”

Running heads are not to be used for chapter openings, table of content pages and the like, because hopefully you know where you are at that moment from actual titles. (If you don’t, there may be larger concerns to consider.) Anything else, longer than one page, is apparently supposed to have running heads, if the body of the book is set up that way. There are rules.

So, running head is a marriage of form and function, one of my favorite things.

Lastly, and I really, really love this add-on from writer Joel Friedlander, “If you take the running heads off of your book pages, the pages are likely to look quite bare, like they went out and forgot to put their clothes on.” Talk about a vision of embodiment. Now I have stark naked detached heads on the brain. That’ll keep my mind racing.


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