mimsy and outgrabe //

a record of panic, parenting, teaching and art-making


Micro-Sabbatical Experiment, Day 2

Where did Day 1 go, you might ask? Read on. (If you're not asking, see you some other time!)

Last semester I managed to carve out time during the morning to read and write, and that was going swimmingly for about, oh, the month of September, until the inevitable grading and committee-work creep took over, and then I didn't write much at all. There were occasional two-hour spans of time during October, November and December as part of a program I organized at Stuffolk through our faculty union -- and these sessions were good and productive, but I spent most of that time sending out submissions or writing things for the college, and not doing any genuine creative work -- or creative work that I found, well, satisfying.

And, as you know, that's not great. Particularly if I would like to keep calling myself a writer.

But -- in the moments in between papers, or driving from one campus to another for yet another meeting -- I thought back to the last two times I made any serious progress with my writing. One was in September, when I had a hard, intractable deadline (for the reading of the first scenes of "Accountability Partners" at the Amos Enos Gallery). The second was in May and June, when I had a few weeks between the spring semester and the beginning of the Last Graduate Summer Course I'll Ever Have to Take for Promotion. (And actually, when I think about it, those summer weeks involved a deadline as well, or TWO deadlines -- one for my initial submission to the Script Development lab, and the next for the final "staged" reading in the Script Development lab.)

Anyway, I came to the following conclusion: I really need to give myself two things if I'm going to finish these existing projects and/or start new ones. First, I need deadlines with external accountability. Like, I need someone outside of my own fucking crazypants head to know what I'm doing and when I'm doing it and when I anticipate finishing the thing. And two, I need to carve out space that is finally, fully, and in no uncertain terms inviolable when it comes to work and even social obligations. No emails, no phone calls, no work on projects I should have finished last month -- just work on my writing. Treat my writing like I treat my day job -- treat my writing like it is my day job. Last summer, when I dedicated a few weeks to such a plan, I called it a mini-sabbatical. Now, to kick off the New Year, I'm going to take a micro-sabbatical.

Because it's going to be just four days long. Because that's all I can afford to give it right now, in between semesters, and especially when I have a busy and obligation-filled semester coming up. I put an outgoing/away message on my work email account. I kept my calendar clear from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the kids come home from school. (I actually postponed and refused to schedule work meetings for this week -- that was a big step for me!) I'm ignoring certain household calamities and putting off room-rescues until the second week of the new year -- just so I can have four days that are devoted to this -- writing, writing, writing -- and writing in various forms, but writing nonetheless.

One of those forms of writing -- in addition to the plays -- will be this blog. Last time I took a true sabbatical, one paid for by the college, official and scary in its official-ness, I started this blog in earnest. I began at the suggestion of my colleague and friend A.P., who had done something similar during his own sabbatical in a previous semester, and it was really helpful in keeping a record of my progress during those many months. When the sabbatical ended, I had fodder for my official sabbatical report (hello, external accountability!) and also I had an archive I could return to when I had concerns about when or why I'd made particular choices in my writing (like my decision to hold off on the verse play and write a fairy tale in metrical verse first). 

So there's going to be a small influx of blog posts over the next few days. Here's your heads-up. I spent yesterday creating an actual micro-sabbatical plan, or outline, for what I hope to accomplish, so: Day One complete. (I came up with that idea last semester, too -- it's funny how stress over grading will make one think about almost anything else but grading.) Anyway, today is Day Two. Day Two involves recording yesterday's progress on the blog (as well as giving it context, otherwise ya'll would be like, what's this chick on about?) and also writing a new "treatment" for the verse play just like I did during the summer, which turned out to be immensely helpful and also another good idea of A.P.'s. (Thanks, dude!)

Day Three and Four, Thursday and Friday, will be to work on writing the first scene of Act I. If I get more than that, yay! But my goal -- modest, I think -- will be attained, and that's important -- really important -- if I'm going to maintain any kind of writing momentum into the next semester. 

Day Five is kind of extra -- Saturday I plan to write a quick wrap-up post to reflect on whether or not the whole venture was successful.

For the record, part of me looks at this mechanization of the writing process with a kind of horror and revulsion, as if writing should happen in a much more organic and inspired way. I wish my writing life could be like that most of the time, I really wish it could -- but I've got three children, a husband, and a career that helps keep us fed and sheltered. For years now I've been trying to make writing fit into my life the way I think it should, but not the way it can, realistically. People who are independently wealthy and/or not primary caregivers are the kinds of people who can devote, daily, hours and hours to writing (if the 20th century has shown us anything). (And as long as we're not Lucille Clifton, that superwoman.) I'm not gonna suddenly become rich, nor will I ditch my kids and career to write poems. But I'm not going to ditch the poem-making, either, and this, so far, is my answer.

Whether or not anyone actually cares that I'm writing poems (see: 2016 was The Year of Rejection) is a subject for a later (maybe never, 'cause wassup, self-pity?) blog post. 


Nerd Epiphanies and Podcasts for Dorks

It's amazing how a person can teach for 11 years and only JUST figure out in her 11th year that, maybe, she should figure out 1) EXACTLY how much time it takes her, on average, to grade the assignments that she grades and 2) schedule it into her work week just like she schedules class time and office hours and meeting times, so that the time is accounted for and protected and separate from all other things. (And by "a person" I mean me, and by "amazing" I mean kind of shameful and stunning in its obviousness.)

Patti Smith talk about writing in Hartford last weekend. So good.
I imagine there are people who are kind of horrified at the idea of scheduling your days in increments and appointments but that's the nature of this gig, I think -- at least, if you're going to do this gig well enough to keep your sanity and not get fired. (And by gig I mean teaching higher-ed. Sheesh. Constantly qualifying. This week has drained me. Brain not quite working.)

Also, I'm sure there are people who do this kind of thing (teaching) and already factor grading into their schedule in a calm and methodical manner and have done so since the beginning of their careers. Those people are far more clever than me.

Anyway, this week I adopted one of the organizational/work efficiency methods I heard about on one of the dorky podcasts I've begun listening to, and it helped me FINALLY conquer at least one batch of papers. That was after I foolishly stayed up far too late, woke far too early, and nearly killed myself with a migraine . . . but at least something went right this week.

Actually, speaking of things going right and podcasts (dorky depending on whether or not you consider poetry and publishing the purview of nerds), for the next two weeks my work is featured on the Painted Bride Quarterly's Slush Pile podcast, where their editorial team records their discussions about work being considered for upcoming issues of the magazine. Yay! It's a completely frightening experience but also a humbling one. I listened to the podcast with trepidation; I mean, I know that ultimately more editors than not liked the poems because they accepted them -- but there was still a chance one or two of the editors wouldn't like them and I might not like the things they said about my work. It turned out that one of the editors really didn't like the word "stitches" appearing so much in the poems (they were chapters from my long fairy tale poem) but that doesn't bother me -- he raised good points and ultimately it's a difference in aesthetics, I think. And the other members of the editorial team gave me a lot to think about, too, in terms of the tale, how people read it, how they process the poem's images, etc. So ultimately it was a very satisfying experience  -- one that I needed to pull me out of what was threatening to be a rather unattractive, too-prolonged funk.

Not that I have time right now to sink into a funk. If there's anything that's good about mid-semester madness, I suppose it's that I don't have much time to feel sorry for myself.


Good News (A Welcome Change to the Blog, I Know!)

The reading at the end of September at Amos Eno went really, really well, which was a relief and a joy. Two friends from my grad school days attended and it was so, so good to see them after, christ, a decade, and to know that they're happy and healthy and doing amazing things of their own (traveling across the globe, training and running marathons, etc.). The Incomparable Ms. C, my former officemate but forever kindred spirit, also traveled into the wilds of Brooklyn to attend the reading, and I rarely get to see her (because she's one of those people usually traveling across the globe, and I'm a suburbanite soccer mom tethered to L.I.). 

The reading itself was charming and fun (I can say that since, more or less, I had little to do with it). I mean, I knew when I asked Nicole Callahan and Jared Harel to read their poems (and some fiction) that they would bring good work; that's why I asked them in the first place. But I was pleasantly surprised at how well the readings complemented one another and supported the themes of the art show -- the connection between the work, visual and textual, was kind of energizing. It gave the night a purpose that made it much more engaging than many non-thematic readings I've attended.

The week or two that followed the reading were a blur of attempts to catch up in all the areas I ignored while preparing for the Amos Eno event. I'm pretty behind in grading -- far more behind than I usually am at this point in the semester (where DID September go to?) and I'm hoping to use a couple of hours this weekend -- which will be spent at the TYCA Northeast conference in Hartford, CT -- catching up. This conference is another one of the fall events I've been so looking forward to, since M.S. and I will be giving a talk and presentation on collaborative teaching that highlights the Poetry & Fiction Broadsides project we've been doing for the past three years -- but it's also going to be a relief when it's over, because it'll be one less thing to worry about.

I AM trying to worry less, and to be less angry, but it's been difficult this semester. Those hateful monthly emails coupled with a disproportionate number of disengaged students (disengaged to the point of being beligerant and hostile) have made for a rough introduction to the academic year; it's just disheartening to take on so much work on behalf of your students and then get open resistance and/or hostility in return. I've been more bitter about, and more suspicious of, my students as a result and that's demoralizing for everyone. I know that my current students have nothing to do with the emails and that the disengaged/sullen ones are aberrations from the norm and that, for the most part, my students are respectful and willing to be taught -- but it's really, really difficult to focus on that reality when you're being told, both explicitly in anonymous emails and indirectly through passive-aggressive classroom behavior, that you're an idiot and a cunt and a poseur. 

Anyway. This was supposed to be a positive blog post, was it not? So time for good news: After many, many, many days of letting my submission to the Painted Bride Quarterly hang out -- well over a year -- the journal has accepted not just one but FOUR chapters of my fairy tale poem for their Monsters-themed print issue. They accept about 3% of their slush pile, so I'm pretty excited about having made it this far, and with so many pages of my metrical fairy tale, too. Because I submitted my full-length manuscript everywhere, like, EVERYWHERE, this spring, the past two months have brought not only the hate-mail campaign but also a barrage of rejections. I knew that's what I was setting myself up for when I submitted to all of those contests and reading periods in the spring, but my ego's taken more of a beating than I expected, and so this acceptance -- while a small victory in the big picture, and not much of a victory for people who don't read poetry or PBQ or have anything invested in the lit world -- feels pretty significant to me. I'm grateful. I feel a little more buoyed, a little more able to face the world and say fuck you to the hater and the sullen, resistant 18 year old classroom-energy suckers.

So I'll end with more positive/happy evidence that life is not all drudge and dreary sucky things:

The audience gathered for "Dopplegangers, Desire, and Domesticity: A Performance and Reading" at Amos Eno Gallery, September 23, 2016

My supportive colleagues, Cynthia Eaton and Misty Curelli, toward the back and the Incomparable Ms. C in the foreground.
I did that thing I hate and read speaker bios from my phone. I'm the worst.
Nicole Callahan reads from her novella and new poems from a series titled "Prime"

Jared Harel reads new poems as well as work from his chapbook, "The Body Double"
Gabe Eden and David Lloyd Rabig of the "Hot Source" podcast read two scenes from my play "Accountability Partners"
It's a play about GOLF. Not really.
Photo courtesy of Cynthia Eaton Tvelia. (Those guys were really funny!)
The cast and crew! Meredith Starr (artist), poet Jared Harel, me, actor David Lloyd Rabig, actor Gabriel Eden, and poet Nicole Callahan


Come to This Reading I'm Hosting. Or Not.

I'm in a weird head-space. Tomorrow I'm hosting and taking part in an event that feels much bigger and important than it really is. Maybe this is because I haven't organized a reading or participated in one for a long time, and maybe this is because there will be people there (friends, colleagues) who haven't read or heard my work before, and maybe this is because the work I'll be 'presenting' -- it's weird using that word -- is so unlike other work I've put out into the world. It's two scenes from a new play I began this summer, and it's being read by two people who aren't me, and it's a comedy, and it's not written with poetry, and it's crass in a way that makes me feel really vulnerable -- because I fear that it will be too crass for some of the audience, and really not enough for others -- I don't want to push boundaries in a half-ass way, but I'm probably going to offend some people and I just have to get over that. I'm excited for it and also dreading it. I really want to forget about my own work and listen to other people read their own poems and fiction and then chat and laugh and merry-make, and then I want also to crawl into a hole or back into my bed or maybe run away, very far away, and not see anyone for a long time.

Also, if hope is an island and I'm standing on it and all of my book submissions are a great ocean all around me, and every time I receive a rejection the waves from that ocean encroach and erode a little more of the shoreline, I'm standing currently on a patch of beach about four feet by four feet, with no trees or fauna to protect me from the sun, and I'm about to just give in to the waves and say fuck it and sink. I did this to myself by submitting my book fucking everywhere for the past year -- I knew the rejections would come in all at once, particularly since a lot of those book contests or open reading periods had the same approximate deadlines. But here I am, feeling dejected anyway. And envious. It's really difficult to hear about your peers' second and third books coming out -- people you consider your peers because, when you met them, you were more or less in the same place, in terms of a writing career -- and get back nothing but rejection on the manuscript you really hoped believed would be your first book. And so yes, anonymous chickenshit hater, I do feel like a fraud and a hack:

Yes, of course, the reasonable person in me says that I shouldn't listen to anything that's sent anonymously and by someone so obviously lazy and unimaginative, but I resent the implication that this person thinks I somehow imagine myself to be more important than I am. I've had a few poems in a few very good places, and I'm proud of that, but I'm also realistic in that they are JUST a very FEW places and they happen sporadically, like every ten years. I don't get my work accepted or published widely, I don't have even one book published after over a decade post-MFA, and I teach at a community college, which makes me a pariah in the larger world of academia and a shit-heel to those who have a well-honed disdain for writers who take the teaching route. I have no delusions about my importance in the larger literary world.

So fuck, man.

Did I say weird head-space? I meant bad head-space. I've been in a terrible mood for the past few days. Here's to hoping I get my head outta my ass some time soon.


Self-Care 2016: Now Featuring Clean-Eating, Podcasts, and Hate Mail

Hello again. It's me.

The past month or so has been filled with a lot of self-care stuff, trying to take care of areas of my life I ignored during May, June, and July while I prepared for my grad course and the script development lab and wrote up/filled out the form for my third and hopefully-final promotion. Then I went to a mini-conference as part of a leadership program at Stuffolk and they had this unit on stress and time-management -- I scored a 27/30, putting me in the high-stress-you're-gonna-have-some-serious-fucking-problems-soon-if-you-don't-knock-it-off category. I already kinda knew I was there, in that red-zone, but, you know, being one of maybe two people in a room of 20 who identified as having high levels of stress made me realize who fucking tired I am of being that person.

So, as the story goes: changes. We'll see if any of them make a difference. Some beach time with the kiddos, some household maintenance, some personal maintenance (running, yoga -- like, yoga-lite, don't be impressed -- eating cleanly and trying to figure out how to be less of a basket case most of the time). Reading. With the kids, by myself, usually at night. A lot of slow-and-steady, early-morning class prep so that I will be better able to focus during the semester. Listening to podcasts while I do the decluttering around the house or driving to the various places suburban life dictates. (I'm on season 2 of This American Life's Serial; all caught up with Hot Source, my brother-in-law's comedy show; and in and out of Slush Pile, the Painted Bride Quarterly's transparent editorial-process-as-radio-show, which is interesting and terrifying at the same time.)

A couple of days ago - a week ago? -- I received a hateful email out of the blue from an account that was promptly deactivated. It was sent to my Stuffolk address, so I suspect it was from a disgruntled former student who didn't like the grade he or she received or the way I ran my class or something I said in class that challenged his or her world view. Who knows, really. I can't imagine anyone in the larger world outside of Stuffolk would have the energy or time to send hate mail to me. 

I enjoyed posting this shit to social media and having my friends and allies defend me, although after a while it just felt uncomfortable and self-serving and left me thinking that maybe my hater had, to a small degree, a point. (I.e. Here I am doing it again! Haha! The hilarity!)

Well done, hater.  Well done.

Still, I'm comfortable enough with myself that I can have misgivings about my actions but not consign myself to "mindless and despicable." I know I'm neither of those things. Most of the time. I mean, look, hater-buddy, I'm having a hard enough time getting my contemporaries to read my poems. Why would I imagine anyone would read them a century from now? 

(On that note, my beginning-of-the-year full-court press on the book publishing world has resulted in a month of fairly steady rejections. So there's that.)

Anyway, he loves me. So there.
All this is to say that I'm in a weird place. Feeling calmer -- which may be a result of the elimination diet (I begin reintroduction of "trigger/allergy" foods today so THAT might change). Feeling also a little sad, sometimes a little ambivalent. But thoughtfully, if that makes sense. And feeling also a little restless. Not in a mid-life crisis way -- which would be right on time, actually, as I turn 40 a few weeks from now -- but in a I'd-like-to-see-some-kind-of-fucking-payoff-for-my-efforts kind of way.


Conference & Script Development Lab Recap (Subtitle: Real Actors Really Read My Play! And Other Things I Did at Writing-Nerd Camp)

This summer has been motherfucking intense. 

I'm not complaining. (Yes, you can breathe a sigh of relief.) I'm just trying to accurately describe the period of time in which I required my squishy, ill-used mom brain to be suddenly very active this summer. (I'm in year three of coming off those pregnancy hormones -- fingers crossed that maybe my brain will return to full capacity by the Christmas season.)

July's Southampton Writers Conference and its Script Development Lab was extremely useful and productive. (So yes, I'm glad I listened to A. and didn't back out. Don't tell HIM that, though.) My experience with the Script Development Lab this year was really outstanding -- not least because of the feedback provided me by the dramaturg assigned to my play (William Carden of the Ensemble Theatre Studio -- who is brilliant and lovely), and its actors and director, but also because, perhaps, I came to the conference with a piece of writing that is working, in ways that previous drafts have not worked. I felt affirmed, or rather, justified -- justified for those hours and days I set aside in June to work on the play while the kids were with my babysitter, justified for those early mornings, justified for all of that time I dedicated to my play when I felt like I should have been working on completing my A-form for promotion.

And yeah, it feels good when you see some return on your efforts.

Despite the time I spent writing in June, however, I couldn't quite finish the first act before the initial table reading -- which is why I approached the conference with such trepidation. But despite having an unfinished script, the table reading was -- at the risk of sounding hyperbolic and like a complete rube -- transformative. Instead of a straight reading of the play, all the way through the script without stopping, Carden allowed the actors to ask me questions about the characters and my vision for the play (which I suspect was particularly useful since they were working with an unfinished script) and sometimes directed them when he felt they were reading a scene or lines in a way that worked against what I'd intended. 

It was so interesting -- I loved the experience of watching a director at work with actors and a script (especially, I must admit, with my script). And I so appreciated the care and regard that Carden took with my work before he'd even arrived at the table reading -- he'd read my last spastic despairing post on my blog and came prepared, I'm guessing, to talk me down out of the rafters. It was, honestly, just nice to be treated with respect and like I actually belonged at that table. For so long I've felt like a fucking imposter or poseur for writing a play, and at this point -- particularly when I was so close to just giving up on the whole project -- it was really important to hear that I have something worth pursuing. 

That's it, I guess. I didn't (don't) need an abundance of praise or hand-holding but I did (do) need to hear that this long, long, LONG exploration of the verse play hasn't been completely in vain.  

The conference was good for two other reasons, too.  One, I used every spare moment of time engrossed in the generation and completion of the first act -- this time a first act that actually prefigures and imagines working in tandem with two other acts. The rapid revision schedule and deadline that followed the table reading required me to focus, write, and rewrite in a way that I haven't in a long, long time. The day before my second draft was due, I spent over eight hours in the library working. My vision was blurry by the time I left and I nearly gave myself a migraine from all of the coffee I consumed, but I managed to complete the first act of the play in a way that feels right -- albeit a little underdeveloped (but that, hopefully, can be corrected after I complete the other acts). 

Two, I completed the last of my graduate credits required for promotion at Stuffolk by taking a workshop with the playwright Lucas Hnath. From Hnath I learned a lot about the teaching of dramatic writing, which will -- hopefully -- translate well when I return to the classroom in the fall. I learned a good deal about the possibilities in dramatic writing, too. Just reading Hnath's plays is an education in itself -- they are wonderfully unexpected in terms of structure and movement and he does gorgeous things with language and the rhythm of spoken speech. 

Lastly, I emerged from the workshop with the beginning of a new play -- something wholly unrelated to poetry, and comic -- incredibly crass -- and fun. It sprang from an assignment, which is never a place I imagine good art coming from, but continues to surprise me as a viable source (the sow poems in my book MS sprang from an "assignment" I gave myself after a long period of not-writing). Not only is this new play something that I'm interested in pursuing and developing further, it's a good reminder that when writing my verse play, I need to have more fun. Less despair, more excitement and daring. I need to remind myself that even though the verse play is a drama, and a heavy one at that, there are so many playful, surprising things I can do with its structure and images (both in language and on the stage). 

Right now, I'm in a period of post-conference stillness. I'm not writing at the moment (this post would be the first non-work related piece of writing that I've done since mid-July), but I needed a little breather. Time to think. I've been trying to do some self-care stuff, and not get too wrapped up in work OR writing for a short while, but that's been difficult. The last week in July I had to attend another conference, for work, so I haven't exactly been sitting around eating bonbons. (Mmmm . . . bonbons. I've been on an elimination diet for food sensitivities for about two weeks, too, and bonbons and wine sound fucking awesome right now . . . nevermind that it's early morning.)  I'm going to take a little trip to Virginia tomorrow and see my family, whom I haven't really spoken to all summer because of my crazy schedule. I'm gonna go squeeze my nephew and chase my niece around. It'll be a nice change of pace before I return to fall semester prep, and hopefully a good last hurrah before I return to my writing projects. I don't mind taking a breather, but I really don't want to lose momentum, you know?


Writing Process as Hangover: Berate Yourself, Hydrate, and then Push Through It

My latest blog posts have felt so solipsistic, particularly in light of the fucking chaos and violence in the world that has always existed but seems, thanks to irresponsible and inconsistent mass media coverage, as if it's escalating inordinately of late -- but I'm keeping up with them as a record of my writing process, which is useful in hindsight but feels something like a giant, unrelenting hangover right now. 

Sometimes Twitter provides catharsis.
Part of this headache-like pressure is very much due to the upcoming script development lab. I told A. earlier in the week that I was thinking of emailing the program and asking them if I could switch from the script development lab to a writer's residency, and he was of the opinion I should just stick with the original plan. He can probably sense that I'm a gigantic coward and that I don't want other people -- particularly people who know what they're doing when it comes to drama -- to read and critique my early work, or work that feels early even if I've been writing it piecemeal for the better part of a decade. He can also probably sense that it's better for me to face my fears instead of just slumping into despondency. It's not even the tough, nasty critique that I'm afraid of -- it's the noncommittal, polite critique that happens when people don't really have any strong reaction to your work at all in either direction: that is truly horrific.

A.P.'s suggestion for writing a treatment of the play -- a la screenwriting and adapted to the process of writing for the stage -- was a fucking good one and it's helped tremendously. It took a few days to get my head out of my ass, but I managed to sit down for a few hours and think through the plot and character development of this play. Something finally clicked. For the first time I began to see a clear development beyond the first act -- I've been stuck in the first act for years -- I've been rewriting the first act for years -- and I suspect this may have been the most significant progress so far. 

The result, however, is that I need to drastically reconfigure my first act (major cutting, adding a through line, re-imagining entire scenes to reflect that through line, etc. ) just to get to the second act and also -- if I'm going to truly commit to this script development lab -- so that I have a workable script for the actors and dramaturg who'll be giving my play their time and effort. 

I have six days before the beginning of this conference, and six scenes outlined for the first act that need to be developed. Basically, one scene per day over a holiday weekend with only one day of babysitting (today) which is also filled with meetings BECAUSE OH MY GOD PEOPLE ARE SCHEDULING MEETINGS RIGHT UP UNTIL THE VERY LAST DAY WE ARE CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO BE AVAILABLE. 

So . . . the odds are in my favor, yes? 

I think I'm going to rename the subtitle for this blog something like "rants and tantrums about writing and academia" because that's what it's turning into. 

I'm a gem, I really am. 

P.S. OH, and because I ignored my blog for so long, I forgot to post the following as a record that I've actually accomplished something during the past few months: