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The Poet is In

24 Nov

It’s become part of a punchline for me now when people ask me what my first Bachelor’s degree was in.

“I majored in poetry, but being a poet doesn’t pay like it used to.”

Always gets a moderate chuckle. But it’s jarring to me to think back to a time when that really was my life plan. I knew it was mostly crazy, and I think I was young and rebelling against growing up. I didn’t want some office job. Like most young people, I rejected the life I thought society was forcing on me. And while I’ve successfully avoided having a desk job for most of my adult life, I did bid farewell to my dream of being a poet laureate. It’s not the creative outlet I wanted to invest myself in. Yet poetry exists in my soul like a latent infection.

Back in April I saw a post on Instagram about a pop-up poetry event at Grand Central called “The Poet is In.” It was an all day event that had poets set up at booths writing personalized poems for people. I left work early and hopped a subway South. I had to be there.

I waited in line for about 45 minutes, not minding at all. I had a book to keep me occupied, and I was so excited. Which poet would I get? That hipster one over there? The wise old man over there? It was amazing to see so many people in line, excited about poetry. That’s what poetry is supposed to be. For the people. To connect with one another and, like all art, to share in a bigger human experience.

I think I would have been happy to get any of the poets, but I felt like fate brought me to Marie Howe. A warm presence with wild hair, it turns out she is actually the one who dreamed up the event when she was the New York State poet laureate. She asked me some questions about myself. About the classes I was taking in school. About what I wanted to grow up to be when I was a little girl. She took some notes as we chatted, then loaded up her typewriter and clacked away. When she was done, she read me my personalized poem.

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I almost cried. I loved it so much, and it felt like the perfect snapshot of that very moment in my life. I sniffled back my tears and profusely thanked her for my poem and for putting the lovely event together.

“You know, I didn’t start really writing my poetry until I was in my thirties,” she told me. “You have it in you for when the time is right.”

I needed to hear that.

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What kind of writing do you want to do?

20 Jan

Turning 29 did something strange to me. I’m not lamenting getting older, and if anything, I’m looking forward to what the rest of my life will bring. So many adventures, loves, opportunities. But there is something about approaching 30 that shakes my core whether I want to admit it or not. If only because it is the end of an era, simply a numerical one, but an era nonetheless. This is the last year of my twenties, and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that means to me and how I want to move forward

I have more or less finished with vet tech school, and I have been looking into what my next step is. While I love my job, it’s not enough for me. I want bigger things. I want more education. I want to move up in a field. I want to always feel good about the things I put out into the world, and I had to figure out what that means.

I circled back, as I always do, to this notion of being a writer. I decided I was going to fully invest myself in it moving forward. So I revamped my linkedin, started applying to every writing job I came across, read an endless sea of articles on how to be a published writer. I networked until I found some real life writers in New York.

Through a friend of a friend, I met Katie. She was so kind and helpful and agreed to meet me for drinks so I could pick her brain about the writing industry in New York. We met at a bar in Midtown, and I asked her about her writing path. She told me about journalism school, about endless internships while waitressing, about small gigs, and about eventually landing an assistant editor position for Yahoo News. She was smart, interesting, impressive. I was excited to be talking to her, thinking, “I could do that!” Then, she asked me, “What kind of writing do you want to do?”

Just about the most obvious question to ask anyone pursuing writing. But my mind was blank. I muttered about my blog, about books, about short stories, poetry, essays. All the things I’ve written over the years and written well. I’ve had numerous writing projects. But what kind of writer did I want to be? I simply didn’t have an answer.

Over the next couple of weeks, I thought about this question that I don’t think writers ask themselves enough. What kind of writer am I? I managed to get a couple of freelance, part-time offers. The first writing blog posts for business websites, the second writing click-bait articles about love and relationships. Real writing jobs! Things that would give me a byline. That foot in the door. On the subway train to the Love and Relationship job, I brainstormed article ideas. I could write about break-ups (I’m a reluctant expert), I could write about the types of guys I’ve dated. I could write about epic fights and moments of love and following one’s heart.

And then I had the answer to that question. “What kind of writing do you want to do?” Not this, I thought. My personal relationships and life are worth more to me than $12 an hour. I didn’t want to give away articles about my sexual history, about the men I’ve loved, about the men I failed to love to some start-up website. Yes, it was a foot in the door. It was a way to get published. And, yes, a part of me does want to write about all of that, but on my own terms. That website is not the kind of writing I want to do.

In December, I wanted 2016 to be the year I became a real writer. That I got published and paid to write. That I could earn some sort of badge I could show everyone that I am a writer. But in January, I realized I don’t need that. Writing, reading, words are fundamental to who I am, and they always will be. I’m 29 and unpublished, but I haven’t formulated anything I want to put into the world. I haven’t yet figured out what piece of my soul I want to share and how. Maybe it will be poetry. Maybe I’ll finally pull together a novel about my crazy Upper East Side vet tech life. But I’m learning to be more gentle with myself. There’s no deadline to be a writer. I am a writer, as much as I’m a girl with freckles. It’s a part of me. I can’t sit at a desk all day writing like some writers do. I write best after a long day or a stretch of days on my feet, absorbing the people around me, the world. As much as I’ve read and researched other people’s writing processes, that’s mine. Slumping in near-exhaustion at my desk and writing for a couple of hours before I pass out. And maybe I just haven’t found that one subject, that one book that will tell the story I was born to tell. And that’s okay. I’m only 29 after all.

30 Before 30: Read “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion

23 Dec

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In my 30th year of life, I’m attempting to do 29 new things. Full List Here. All Bucket List Adventures Here.

I read this book in the span of a day. It’s not a long book, and the prose is quick and simple. It’s also a story that pulls the reader in. It documents the year of her life after her husband John died. He had a heart attack in front of her, and, as she puts it, in an ordinary moment her life changed.

I’m still processing how I feel about the book. It’s different from most anything I’ve ever read. Death and loss are not new topics. I think the difference with Didion is that she doesn’t try to pull at your heartstrings. She doesn’t conjure up lost memories of her husband and her at their happiest. Their first kiss. Sweet things he did for her. None of that is there. It is simply the story of her mind coping with the grief.

Reading her analyze her mind and notice her thought patterns in the year after she lost her husband pulls the reader closer to understanding how it feels to lose a life partner. At one point, I took a break from reading it and looked at the simple layout of the cover. Only four letters in a different color than the rest. My eyes scanned from the J to the O to the H to the N. John. Her ex-husband. I give that cover designer enormous credit for putting together such an understated cover that describes the essence of the book. The shadow Didion’s husband cast over her life, especially in the year after he died, was unavoidable and seeped into her mind in curious ways.

Her writing is so straight-forward and without embellishment that I was surprised by how much her love for him resonated. In interviews, she has said that she thought the book turned into a love story instead of a story about grief. And I agree. This is not a book for the faint of heart. Your heart will break alongside hers. But it is beautiful, and it is important, and I learned so much from it.

“We are not idealized wild things.

We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. And as we will one day not be at all.”

 

NaNoWriMo 2015

1 Dec

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About a month ago (probably around the last time I wrote a post), I went to a pumpkin carving party. It was a girl’s night with apple cider sangria, Hocus Pocus, and a variety of garlic spinach dips. The night was hosted by a girl I met through softball. I don’t know her very well, and I didn’t know her friends at all. As I always do in new social circles, I clammed up. I sat gulping my sangria out of nervousness and listening to the conversations around me. One of the girls there, a 26-year-old bubbly blonde mentioned she was a journalist at a small press magazine. It was inconsequential, but it stuck.

That night, I walked back to the apartment where I cat sit and thought, “Why that girl? Why not me? Why aren’t I a journalist, a writer, a novelist?” The Greek chorus of negativity filled my brain. I’m not good enough. I’m too lazy. I should just give up and stick to animals. But the fact of the matter is that I haven’t tried. I can count on one hand the amount of pieces I have submitted for publication. One smattering of poems to a contest, two or three articles to online publications. That’s it? I put together this blog and revel in the humble amount of readers, likes, comments it receives. But I’ve wanted more.

When I was 7-years-old, I changed schools for the third time. I toured the new classroom in the new town amongst new people feeling overwhelmed and scared. The teacher, Ms. Sperling, tried to cheer me up by showing me the art projects, the crawfish pool full of critters, and the music room stuffed with instruments. But what I remember most is when she showed me the area of the room where students could make “books.” To my childish memory they looked like the books I spent so much of my time with: professional, real, put-together books. In reality, they were stapled together sheets of printer paper with lines on them. But I held those stacks in my tiny, little hands and that was it for me. My future, my dreams were as blank and as limitless as those lines on paper waiting to be filled with something, anything.

So at 29-years-old, I wanted to start then and there. I wanted to get back on that road. So I signed up (for the fourth time) for National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo is an event that has been going on for a long time. It challenges writers to put together a 50,000 word novel within the month of November. I first did it in college with my friend Eric, who is now a writer/editor for Vice Sports. It was something fun to do together. We’d meet up after class in the student union and type away. We kept tabs on each other. It was a silly side project, since we were both deep into the Creative Writing program at our university. Once it was over, it was done, eclipsed by the concerns. The two times I’ve attempted since then, I’ve given up after a day or two. I’d get behind and abandon the concept, citing a lack of time and commitment.

Why not try again? I’ve spent years talking about putting together a novel based on my experiences in veterinary medicine. The crazy clients, the patients that have stolen my heart, the dramatic co-workers. Life, death, love, hate, anger, loss. All there and ripe to be written about. And that’s where I have spent my month. I got behind on my word-count often and would spend my days off trying to catch up. I stopped going out, usually grabbing a quick drink before making an excuse to head home and invest an hour or two in my writing. My mind felt like it was coming alive. I started carrying a notebook with me to jot down ideas. Instead of watching “Gilmore Girls” before bed, I found myself reading volumes of poetry, soaking in the eloquent language and trying to incorporate it into my own. I thought about publishing, writing programs, writing jobs, freelancing. So many options beckoned before me, but I didn’t have time for any of them.

Something in this novel took over me. I had to finish it. I didn’t think it would be great, and I don’t know if I will ever do anything with it. But I had to finish it. It was something that I had a hard time explaining to loved ones. It was a reminder to myself that not only is this a dream, it’s a possibility. I had to reach my hand back in time to that 7-year-old girl within me and let her know that I’m still working on it. It was a way to shut up the chorus in my mind that said maybe being a writer wasn’t feasible, maybe it’s all been talk over these years, maybe it’s time to settle down into some other career.

The novel is done. I finished it yesterday with such an air of satisfaction. Some things came out of my mind that I was proud of. Most of it is fluff that will later be deleted. I don’t know if I’ll pursue editing it into something publishable or break it into short story vignettes that I might start submitting. But I am comforted by Hemingway’s letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald where he said, “I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit.” So, as long, as my 150 page novel contains at least two good pages, I’m on par with Hemingway, and that’s all any hopeful writer can ask for.

 

To Write, To Work, To Somehow Do Both

28 Jul

My mother told me that quote when I was a teenager getting ready to head off to Seattle, to an unknown future. The only thing I knew as I entered the University of Washington was that I was going to write. And I lived by those words and still do.

But four years later, I was left with a quandary that I still haven’t been able to solve. My fellow creative writing graduates fell into one of two categories. One, they got a job and started paying off their student loan debt. (That’s my category.) Two, they applied to MFA programs to continue on in creative writing academia. Seven years later, I’m not sure which is the better option, and I bounce back and forth every couple of days as to whether I want to apply to an MFA program or whether I want to continue working as a vet tech while writing on the side.

The pro of doing an MFA program for me is the time allotted to write. MFA programs are typically completely funded and give writers a one or two year window to just write, to talk about writing, to edit and craft and read on some isolated college campus, hobnobbing with established writers and other prospective writers. It sounds like paradise.

The pro of working a normal job comes from the inspiration it provides. A lot of the writing I’ve read that comes out of MFA programs doesn’t resonate with me. The skill of composition is there, the ability to create a well-crafted story is there, but it’s stilted, contrived. So, often, the main characters are writers, struggling through academia. Or the fictional characters don’t feel real; I’m assuming because they came from the writer’s imagination. This is where experience helps so much. I have so many stories I have collected in the last 7 years that I want to tell. My solo drive from Seattle to Reno, fraught with confusion at what my future held. Working at a hospital in Northern Nevada, seeing some of the craziest hillbillies in existence. Moving to New York and starting a new life with no money, no friends, no direction. Working at an Upper East Side vet clinic where I get to meet strange characters and see dramas unfold between co-workers, clients, pets and their owners every day. If I had spent the last seven years focused on writing, I don’t think it is possible to have come up with characters and situations as rich as these.

But the con of working is the catch-22 of the whole problem. I’m tired. All day at the clinic, my mind is running on eight cylinders thinking of the stories I want to write, the novel I want to put together of this strange microcosm of New York City. I come home and collapse. I opt to kickbox or cook a new dish or just watch the newly released Season 4 of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” I look over at my beautiful new laptop, sitting shiny and lonely on my desk, and I can’t do it. Can’t is wrong. Won’t. I won’t do it. Here I sit on a Tuesday night at the end of my weekly string of three days off, and this is the only writing I’ll have to show for it. I kick myself. I kick myself every week.

Where did that time go? I drank. I played softball. I drank. I grocery shopped. I kickboxed (subsequently regretted the drinking). I bought Microsoft Word for Macs, thinking that getting a better word processor on my laptop will flip the magic switch in my brain and make me write. I watched Anthony Bourdain and read “Outlander.” I played a stupid game on my cell phone. I did laundry. I finally got that ink stain off my desk. I called and emailed vet clinics about setting up an externship. I made this delicious mixture of heaven.

But I didn’t write. But the question then becomes, if I didn’t have work to tire and stress and drain me emotionally, would anything really be different? Is it possible to balance it all? Do I even have it in me?

Finding Poetry

2 Jun

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New Year’s Resolution #5 this year (right after “Drink Less”) was “Find My Poetry.” By that I didn’t mean write more poetry, read more poetry, or even go to more poetry events, although all those are lacking in my life. I meant to find the poetry that used to infuse my life, that used to be the core of who I was. Six years ago, it meant everything to me, and somewhere along the way I lost it.

As with most resolutions, I started out strong. I volunteered at the Poetry Project‘s annual New Year’s Day Reading Marathon. After serving chilli to the masses for a couple of hours, chatting with poets, volunteers, fellow verse enthusiasts, I was allowed free admission to the reading. The Poetry Project is housed in a church in the Lower East Side and this reading took place in the nave. Some of the poems were beautiful, some were hilarious, some were stirring. More than anything it felt good to be hearing it again.

As I was leaving to go feed a pug in Midtown, I ran into an old friend/writing partner. I recognized his shock of white hair, and we hugged, whispering together. We used to get together once a week in Seattle to read poetry and write it, to drink whiskey and talk about our futures. He’s currently getting his MFA in Alabama. He was in town to spend time with his boyfriend who lives in Brooklyn.

“Oh, I knew Chrissy Wilson would be here!” he said to me. “I’ll be moving here in June. Let’s have poetry dates again.”

We were shushed by people around us, so I agreed, hugged him, and left. Six months later, it’s June. He emailed me that he’ll be here in a couple of weeks. But I haven’t done a single thing to find my poetry since that blustery New Years day. Time has done nothing but slip through my fingers.

But the other night, I was reading an interview with Cheryl Strayed where she mentioned one of her favorite Emily Dickinson quotes, the one in the art above: “If your Nerve, deny you-/Go above your Nerve.” And I couldn’t get it out of my head. I couldn’t get Emily Dickinson out of my head. I found myself pulling my dusty Parini Poetry Anthology (which could also function as a bludgeoning weapon) off the shelf and started reading the poems of hers I found there. And not just her. I felt as though I was looking through an old yearbook as I sighed over the names of poets long forgotten. Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, Louise Gluck, Theodore Roethke. I read Anthony Hecht’s “The Dover Bitch” over and over again, feeling just as enamored with its perfection as I did when I first read it for a class in 2007.

“…To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl…”

Then I moved on to my old notebooks. The ones I carried with me everywhere. Full of mini-poems, thoughts, quotes, drawings. Nothing spectacular, just the things I heard and saw that stirred something in me, that felt destined to become a poem or a story or anything.

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This page with lyrics from a Gwen Stefani song, from a Blur song, a quote from the beginning of an episode of Planet Earth, a drawing of my legs in capri jeans. The notebook was full of nonsense like this. Recipes, directions, notes to self, doodles, schedules. It reminded me what I was missing when I lost my poetry. It’s about the observation, the curiosity of life, the ability to try and turn things askew and look at them in a new way. This isn’t to say I’ve found my poetry but those old notebooks that are full of embarrassing things and a couple of poignant things reminded me to observe and to note. That is the purpose of writing after all. Not to just publish or write successful how-tos. It’s to be a correspondent to the unique experience we each have.

I said that I hadn’t found my poetry, but on second thought, maybe I have.

Where are you going, where have you been?

10 Feb

This doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Joyce Carol Oates story of the same name. I just love that title. I also love the story and recommend it to anyone else who is likewise fascinated with American fables.

The shoe tree on the drive from Seattle to Reno.

The shoe tree on the drive from Seattle to Reno.

 

“Where are you from originally?”

It’s my most dreaded of questions that new acquaintances ask me. It is also one of the most common in a city of immigrants and transplants. I’ve always struggled with how to answer. Buffalo? Reno? Seattle?

My answer is Seattle, because if I have to launch into a discussion about one of those cities, Seattle is the place I want to talk about. Plus I lived there for five years. But I’m also coming up on my five-year anniversary of living in New York.

Five years. I can’t believe it. Instead of wearing it like a New Yorker badge of honor like a lot of people do, I find myself wondering, “How did that happen?”I can demarcate my time in this city by the different periods where I was sure I was going to leave, where I hatched a plan and set a secret date for my Exodus. But here I am.

I think of the day I left Seattle. I crashed at my friend Eric’s apartment, because I had sold him all my furniture and had no where to sleep. He drove me back to my apartment on a foggy morning. He called it “Chrissy weather,” that perfect mixture of summer fog that dissipates by mid-afternoon. I packed up the last of the things into my Jeep and headed to the coffeeshop where I had worked for three years. My boss Anna gave me treats for the road and everyone hugged me. It was a Sunday, and I set my radio to listen to the Mariner game. I drove South on I-5, passing the stadium. The farther South I got, the less I could get the game on the radio. I wiped a couple of tears from my eyes and ignored the voice screaming inside of me that told me not to leave.

Six years later, I can’t believe where I am and what I’ve been through. I never thought Reno would lead to New York. I never thought I’d get to go to Japan and Iceland. I never thought I’d become a veterinary technician. I’m a happier person now than I was when I left Seattle, but it’s a strange thing to mark the passage of time. What would life have been like if I had turned the Jeep around and driven back into Seattle? It’s foolish to think about, because I will never know.

It’s a bittersweet feeling to realize that soon I will have lived in New York longer than I lived in Seattle. What does that mean exactly? Am I from here now? Can I no longer claim Seattle a home? Why doesn’t that make me happy? Most importantly, what do I do next? Where do I go?

July 11, 2012

10 Dec

I was recently going through older pieces of writing I have saved to my computer when I found this. I don’t know where I was going with it or what it was meant to become, but I like it. Also, I found a picture from around that time to go with it.

Brooklyn Botanical Garden, May 2012

Brooklyn Botanical Garden, May 2012

I recently read this new theory that scientists have about time. They theorize that the feeling that we all tend to have, that time is slowing, creeping along, is true. Time is slowing down, the universe itself is slowing down, and will eventually stop. This is how the world will end.

This is the most beautiful theory for the end of the world that I can possibly imagine. Compared to the devil roaming the world, nuclear apocalypse, freak global-warming storms killing us all, the world will just come to a stop, like a quarter rolling on its side that eventually falls even with the table.

These scientists also explain that this shift in time is so subtle that we won’t even know it is happening.

So right now, as your life spirals around you, and nothing makes sense. It is coming to a conclusion, time is working in ways around you that you cannot possibly comprehend. It will stop. It will freeze, and you won’t even know it is happening. All of a sudden, everything will freeze-frame like in a musical from the 1950s.

Where will you be? What will you be doing? Think about this insane world of ours and imagine that moment is happening right now, and you (by some universe intervention) are allowed to walk around and observe it. The couples whose lips are mere millimeters away from the first kiss, the bullet that is heading toward some undeserving heart, the match that is so hot and just about to burst into flame, the girl that’s been crying for days and days, and her tears just stop, floating between her cheeks, her hands, the floor.

In a way, all of those photographs we take of one another are just precursors to this, I hate to use the term, but disaster. Look at those photos, look closely, this could be your eternity, that stupid smile, those people you sit with, words escaping somebody’s lips in the background. This is what forever looks like.

Morning Pages

22 Jan

2013-03-05 15.18.12-1This is the year that I’m forcing myself to become a writer. I’ve started writing a downright shitty book, full of cliches and adverbs, and I have no idea where I’m going with it. But I’m getting it out there. It’s the book I’ve been holding inside of me for years, and I’m doing it. I want to shape it, help it grow. I’d love for it to be great one day. But, right now, I’m getting that shitty thing on paper one word at a time.

I’ve committed to writing for at least an hour, for at least five days out of the week. As much as I wish I could quit my job and dedicate myself to my dream full time, I have to go to work. A part of me likes work, finds inspiration there. I’ve looked to other writers to see how they’ve circumvented this problem. So many of them offer the same piece of advice, morning pages. They get up before their normal day would start and churn out some writing. Before the different stresses of life arise, before work and family and friends drain the energy, before the phone starts ringing, they dedicate themselves to solitude and writing.

I’m not a morning person. My college roommate, who has been one of my lifelong friends, described my morning persona as “Satan incarnate.” I’d like to think that with maturity, I’ve become a little less demonic in response to my alarm, but I still hate it. I love nothing more that staying in bed, continuing my dream, snuggling for an unreasonable amount of hours. I’m a pro at it.

So this whole morning pages thing has been something I have always eliminated as a possibility for me. But this is the year. This is when I dedicate myself to writing, when I decide that writing my shitty book is more important than an extra hour of sleep. I bargained with myself. At first, I planned on doing it every day before work. Then I eliminated Saturday, because it is already tragic enough that I work on Saturday. Then I eliminated Fridays, because I already get up at six and that’s too early. Soon enough, Wednesday went out the door, because it’s like my Monday, and Monday’s are horrible.

So Thursday.

If I can resist the snooze tomorrow morning, it will be my third Thursday in a row where I got up an hour early to write morning pages. I sulk for about five minutes, then I get down to it. It makes such a difference. That little sacrifice of sleep reminds me how important this work is to me. It gets my brain going in the directions I want it to go. And my shitty book keeps growing and growing.

Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro

13 Jan

It’s such a tiny, little book. It fit so snuggly in my purse, and I took it out almost everywhere I went the week I was reading it. It’s not even a book as much as an amalgamation of all the different things she has learned in her years as a writer. It’s her wisdom, it’s the wisdom of the people who have inspired her, it’s little tips on how to approach writing.

I had fun reading this book. So much so that I bought my own copy while I was still reading the one I had checked out from the library. It now sits atop my printer on my writing desk with its own designated bookmark. Each nugget of advice is only a page or two long, and I’m trying out a ritual (at her suggestion). I read one little nugget as preparation for an hour of uninterrupted writing. It inspires me and reminds me why I write. It makes that hour of solitary writing a little less lonely.