mimsy and outgrabe //

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


Gang Aft Agley: Micro-Sabbatical Wrap Up

So, the micro-sabbatical was a good idea and totally, wholly worth the planning, effort, work and (some) trouble, but like the best-laid plans, it didn't deliver everything it promised when it was being conceived in my head.

For one, you may have noticed -- and been grateful for -- a conspicuous absence of blog posts, right after I'd written something like, "lookout, I'm gonna blow up your feed," or whatever. It turned out that it took me far, far too long to write that first/only blog post of the micro-sabbatical -- like, about two hours -- and that's probably because I haven't written in the blog for a long time and it always takes me a while to get back into the rhythm of the thing, and writing prose. So, when I'd spent a good part of my precious kid-free, solitary-in-the-house time writing about writing the verse play but not actually working on the play itself, I decided that blog posts were not as beneficial when you're working with a hyper-constrained deadline. So, naturally, the first rule of micro-sabbaticals is:
  • Blog posts or journal entries should be kept to a minimum. Only write them if you think you need to clear your head/talk through a problem with the internet/universe. They're probably more useful as bookends to the whole experience.
Because, really, it WAS useful sitting down and writing about what I planned to do. Again, external accountability was a motivator, but having a chance to kind of summarize everything and take a big-picture look at the next four days was helpful before I dug in.

So. To begin the digging in, I read my play (the "complete" first act). Then I began a new treatment. The play has changed so drastically from when I wrote my first treatment, and for the better -- but the act of writing the new treatment made it clear that there's still lots of work to be done on the first act.

Old me would have found this depressing. (Well, old me is this me as I'm in year forty -- um, former me? Christ, it's early. Where's my coffee?) Anyway. Me-of-a-couple-of-months-ago may have found this a disheartening revelation. Me-of-the-beginning-of-the-month was actually kinda jazzed by it -- because even if the first act needs some fleshing out, it's a solid first act. It has a beginning-middle-end. Plot: check. There's one scene that's kind of expository and needs to be edited/reworked, but for the most part, the characters engage purposefully. Dialogue: check; character development: double check. And there are moments in the verse I kind of like, of which I'm fairly proud, where the poetry is doing the thing the poetry is supposed to do. Ultimate aim of this crazy project: Thank-the-fuckin-lord-check.

I ended the summary of each scene with bullet notes in red that caught my ideas, at this point, for revision. Sometimes I also inserted, with red text, sentences inside the summaries to indicate specific places where revision needed to take place. The big difference between old-Sarah-working-on-the-play and this-Sarah-working-on-the-play is that old-Sarah would have begun immediately reworking the first act once she saw all these red-light moments on the screen. Because, if I'm honest, old-Sarah didn't have much of a play to work with, so she worked with what she had. If there was anything good about 2016, (for me, where my writing is concerned), it's that even if I'm not totally sure about where the play will culminate, I am far more certain about where it's going to go in Act II. 

Moving from lyric to plot is hard, man. I didn't have as much trouble doing this when I wrote the fairy tale poem, and that's something I thought about during the micro-sabbatical. Which brings me to another rule:
  •  Thinking is part of writing, and thinking only happens when you give yourself space -- quiet, alone space. This is where the revelations and epiphanies about your work occur. So even if you're not generating material, time spent mulling over problems (even while, say, folding your family's laundry) is valuable time. Don't discount it. 
My revelation or epiphany about my play had to do with its progress, which I've lamented since, oh, maybe year two of this project. But something shifted during the tiny, cramped four days of this at-home writing residency, and I decided to stop beating myself up and expecting this to be finished anytime soon. 

Because it's not like any of the other animals I've worked with before. It's not a single lyric poem: the bulk of it isn't going to come to me in one sitting and then gradually be revised and refined over the course of days, weeks, or months. Neither is it a play in prose: again, dialogue between characters isn't going to come lightning-strike fast when I'm writing those conversations in meter. My first thought was that it was kind of like a novel -- and many authors take years to finish their first novels. Sometimes decades. Why not give myself the same kind of space? But then I remembered that A.P., my incredibly prolific office mate, finished his novel in a few months. Also, significantly, he did it while on a sabbatical.

I don't want to be dismissive of a regular writing practice. I think that the ritual of getting up early and writing a little bit each day IS incredibly valuable, not just for the creation of the work but for my psychological well-being. I need that time, alone and without anyone else in the house stirring, to write and think simply because it makes me feel better, less crazy and frenetic.

But also I realize more clearly that I need to regularly schedule these micro-sabbaticals or mini at-home writing residencies, whatever the fuck I need to call them, throughout each year. I need days, consecutive days, where my only goals have to do with writing the play, for several hours at a time, every day. That's what a project like this requires. Single poems or even single poems that are part of a larger sequence don't require this kind of time. I'm going to make some progress, sure, with my 45 minutes in the morning that I can regularly devote to writing. But the real work, the real progress, is going to come only when I have those larger spaces of time.

So. Spring Recess? That's the next section of time where the kids will be in school (our spring breaks do not align) and I'll have the house to myself. I won't schedule anything else, I won't make big elaborate plans for work-related projects or fixing up our house -- I'll just put kids on the bus and then sit down to write. And we'll see what happens. 

Maybe a finished Act II will be what happens. That would be nice, wouldn't it?
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
          Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
          For promis’d joy! (Robert Burns, "To a Mouse," 1785)


Morning Reading/Mourning, Reading

"What happens to a person, however odd this may sound, also happens to a nation, a nation being, when it finally comes into existence, the achievement of the people who make it up; and the quality of the nation being absolutely at the mercy of, defined and dictated by, the nature and quality of its people." -- James Baldwin
I've been working on a blog post about my micro-sabbatical in bits and pieces, and I'd planned on publishing it today in an attempt to just ignore the Inauguration, and yet, I can't. 

I can't ignore the very real implications of Donald J. Trump's ascendancy to the highest political office in the nation. Or how much it bothers me that people I know, people I like, voted for Trump not because they are intrinsically racist or misogynist or ableist, but because they felt comfortable dismissing his racist comments, and his misogynist and ableist words and acts, in favor of casting a vote along party lines. It bothers me that they didn't see how their vote was, in itself, a misogynist, racist, ableist act.

I opened Baldwin's The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings this morning, at random, and ended up at the end of "The White Problem," one of the pieces he wrote around the time of the Birmingham crisis in the 60s. It's wholly and utterly depressing that the essay is as necessary and relevant as it was then; and yet, there is such a rampant, virulent anti-intellectual pulse in our country that very few people will read it. 

Still, the quote above: I feel low when I read the quote in the context of today, when Washington, D.C. is going to be inundated with the shit-show grandstanding of one of our great failures as a nation, Donald J. Trump. And I feel better, more hopeful, when I read Baldwin's quote in the context of tomorrow, when Washington, D.C., and so many other cities across the nation, will be inundated with women and men marching together to show strength, determination, and solidarity in the face of so much hate, collective narcissism, and celebrated, glorified ignorance.


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.