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me as a stone

One of the things that happens when you don't blog for 4.5 months (and only sparingly the year before that) is that you get great ideas for things to write about and then you never end up writing the posts because inertia is a real and true thing. Another real and true thing is apathy, and so is the conviction that what you are writing is serving no one, not even yourself.

Anyway, this post was triggered by reading a month-old article in The Atlantic Thursday night and thinking about it ever since, but jsyk I will probably write posts in the future that quote year-old articles and like today, I am only doing it because the truth of them is more important than their newness. All Hail Old Internet. And coincidentally, the article in question gives a little love to Old Internet itself--a look back on the changing idea of The Stream and what it's like to generate and consume content right now. I know it sounds super thinky, but bear with me, because I promise it will make sense. If nothing else, it's the foundation for the rest of the post so LISTEN UP.

Alexis Madrigal, from "2013: The Year the Stream Crested":

Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps.

It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what's out there is crap.

When the half-life of a post is half a day or less, how much time can media makers put into something? When the time a reader spends on a story is (on the high end) two minutes, how much time should media makers put into something?

The necessity of nowness plus the professionalization of content production for the stream means that there are thousands and thousands of people churning out more crap than can possibly be imagined. And individual consumers of information have been tuned by social-media feedback mechanisms (Likes!) to do for free what other people do for money. They, too, write viral headlines, post clickbait, and compete for mindshare.

The dwindling of my blog writing went hand in hand with dwindling blog reading, too. When yet another week would pass without writing anything new here, I would avoid checking in on others. The aversion grew. I'm telling you now: That aversion vortex is the worst time ever to open up Twitter, because with that mindset I could only see the stream that Alexis describes, so noise, very crap, much viral. It will convince you that it's Upworthy's world; we're just clicking in it. When you step away from that system, it feels GOOD, a guilty kind of good in a nice smug candy shell. And I have participated in that system before and I will do it again in the sense that this post will autotweet when it goes live, on purpose, just once. No one is writing a blog to keep it secret; otherwise they would write in their paper journals or on password-locked sites and give New Post announcements to their dog with a treat in hand. We write to be read. That is not a bad thing. 

But I have decided that I like the idea of almost none of my followers catching that one tweet, or at least I don't mind it. This is the nature of the stream and I don't want to fight it and be all Waving Not Drowning. I am going to trust that if someone really wants to read what I have to say, they know where to find it (note: new RSS link!), or that they'll find me eventually, and in the meantime I will go on worrying more about how I feel about the posts than how someone else might feel. I am not deluded enough to think I am actually The Media as referenced in that quote up there, but in those quiet months without blogging, I thought a lot about how much time I had spent writing blog posts since those first insomniac nights on the reservation when I started writing online on my old Mac G3, how I learned to write for an audience that was not a professor or a workshop, how rewarding it could be. And I wondered how much time writing here should take if I started up again, and how much I cared about it, and what I wanted that writing to be for the people who read it... the people who spend two minutes on a piece of content written by professionals, never mind what I generate.

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The answer is multipart: I know I do not want to "compete for mindshare." That sounds completely counter to what we've been told to do, to weigh stats and our number of comments and evidence of shares as we evaluate whether a post was successful (when we know that the comment economy has become a flawed one). I am not seeking "growth" or "community" for its own sake as much as I want people to read of their own volition, because they wanted to, and for me to get to know them one on one instead of as a broadcast target. I want their two minutes to not feel like ones they'll never get back. I want to feel the freedom to stop reading blogs that don't engage me because I think quid pro quo reading is a waste of everyone's time and insulting to boot. I want to write things that others want to share, which can only happen if the people reading genuinely enjoy the stuff I'm writing, and if no one shares it, that hopefully means they're being more particular about their own stream and that is wonderful too. I want to continue to try to write a list every week, even if it's just a silly one, because I like the idea of a series of somewhat parallel objects, and because doing something once a week will keep me from feeling that awful icebreaking feeling that goes with not writing, and because I cannot be a pompous ass all of the time. But I don't want the lists to be the only thing I write; the things I have missed writing most are the ones that started in one place and ended up somewhere completely different than I intended. 

You'll notice that the thoughts are mostly about the writing itself than the packaging and pushing of it. I don't think this is a bad thing. And I have talked about this stuff with my friends over the past couple of months and I know I'm not alone here.

My favorite blog find while I was on hiatus was Ill Seen, Ill Said, Jane Flanagan's blog. It is the perfect blend of thoughtfulness and pretty things; it is neither vacuous or ponderous but friendly and elegant and smart. I think you should read it. There was a time I would have said that I wanted to be Jane when I grow up, and that's not untrue. But mostly, I want to continue being me and getting better at doing so. This site is still part of that. I want it to be the stone that finds its way to your hand when you plunge it into the stream, one that you take with you, and I'm okay with everyone else who throws that stone back when it's not the right fit.

I never was smart with love.

We are another year married. There are long times when the work of marriage is exhilarating, rewarding, we-are-so-damn-good-at-this work and you remember why you said you wanted to do it every day until you died. And then there are times when your marriage will sit there and drone like a Coke machine and every once in a while you’ll give it some money and it will give you cavities and caffeine one mouthful at a time. Because it is not going away; no distributor is coming by in a fixed number of years giving you the new model Coke machine with the dollar acceptor that never spits back your wrinkly-ass dollar. Marriage is maintenance and archeology and psychology and industrial arts and home ec. It is that kind of math that Good Will Hunting did. It is all the work, and it is work on yourself and I both love and loathe work on myself. You can’t work on the other person, though. That’s their project, the same way you don’t want them messing around in your project even when they’re looking askance at you like are you going to get that done anytime this year or what? It is hard to do your project, let alone the other stuff that goes with being married, when you are broken down into your component parts and cannot reassemble yourself because there is no allen wrench for this.

It took more than I can tell you to get me to this point, right here, today, with the wherewithal to write a post that was more than a dive into my past for safe stories. It took brutal sickness, complete mental check-out, anger and more anger and so many I-give-up shrugs that I don’t even have shoulder ligaments anymore. It took every single sunny Winnipeg winter day and then it took the snow melting and purple puffball alliums coming up from the earth. It took a lot of bacon. It took me wondering what I could abandon, and who. My mind did a fucking Ironman this spring, and then it did a victory tour to Ottawa where I once again attended the inspiring Social Capital Conference (and even hosted my own roundtable discussion about group web projects) and had meals and drinks and gelatos and good talk with some  of  my  favorite  people in this entire country. It really is something to give your sanity an IV bag full of validation and camaraderie, and I don’t take it for granted.

I’m home again now, writing again at last and making small progress on the house. The bedrooms and all of the hallways in this house are a bizarre flashback to the you-wish-it-was-caramel-but-really-it’s-Cover-Girl-foundation brown walls I had in the master bedroom in my old house. To make it worse, the bedrooms here are small—1910s small—so those dingy brown walls made the rooms look even smaller. I painted the open closet of the master bedroom last month in a soft blue, but it took until now to get the bedroom walls started themselves. When I painted those words on my walls last time, tiny traces of them still showed up on the surface after multiple coats of primer and paint. I liked knowing they were there. This time I wondered what kind of love I wanted to seal into the bedroom, secret except for you, me, and the rest of the internet. 

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And here’s where I get back into the beloved and beloathed work on myself. People who have been privy to the deeper hell of the past year heard me say more than once that I’ve been an open wound for almost all of it, and I’m just sick of living that way. I’m not saying I’ll never fall apart again, but I can try harder instead of being seduced by how deliciously easy it is. There is only one thing that’s going to kill me, whether it’s a tumor or a truck. Whatever it is, it’s not here today. What is the worst a person could do? Die on me? I’ve survived that. Shut me out? I’ve survived that too. Break my heart? Been there, baby. Tell my secrets? It’s been done. None of it killed me, no matter how I thought it would; I am still here, rode hard though my psyche might be. The people I love deserve all of me. They earned it for loving what was indestructible beneath that open wound. 

#scintilla13: charmed, I'm sure

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 15 prompts, Tell the story of how you got the thing you are going to keep forever. Include an image in your post, if you can.We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

When I told my mom I was getting married, I hadn’t seen her for a few years, though we spoke on the phone frequently. “It’s no big deal,” I said. “Just a tiny wedding, just a couple of people. You don’t have to come if you don’t want.” It broke my heart to say that, but from her sigh of relief I knew I’d said the right thing.

“I wish I could. But I’m happy for you.”

My grandparents had both had serious recent health issues. I wanted her with me, of course, but they needed her. I didn’t know at the time that she was already quite sick herself and felt unable to leave home even for a weekend. I asked if I could borrow her charm bracelet to wear for the day, and made arrangements for Michelle to pick it up on her way to the occasion.

I had always loved it, ever since I was a little girl and first jingled it under her watchful eye. It was made up of around 25 charms, mostly from her teens and early twenties. I have always had a fascination for who my mother was outside of her role as a parent, and the bracelet dangled and jangled with the noise of her history. Her first job out of high school, as a secretary in an office down in the city. Her sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays. Road trips with friends to Virginia, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, New York. Her graduation, her nomination as Girl of the Month, January 1969. Her engagement and wedding. Obscure charms with dates engraved and no clue as to what they might mean—their significance secret. And now I was going to have a part of her to keep with me on the day I would make the most serious promises ever. It mattered. I walked into the art gallery where Myron was waiting for me, and when he noticed it on my wrist, he immediately tuned out the celebrant and brushed it with his fingertips. I still don’t know if he knew everything he agreed to when he said “I do.”

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When she said afterward that I could keep the bracelet, I was moved and grateful. I kept it safe and examined the charms again from time to time, especially when I missed her. I brought it with me when she went into the hospital for the last time, and I wore it through all the grief rituals in the days after she died. The cousin who gave her this bridesmaid charm came to the funeral home, and I showed it to her—Remember this? She kept it. It was a moment I won’t forget. Thirty-five years vanished for her and then rushed back again. All because of a piece of metal the size of a quarter. 

They say after someone dies, all you have left are your memories, and to an extent that’s true. And obviously, you do get to keep personal effects and grant them meaning. I love that part of what remains of my mother are these mysteries, the question of whether my scamp of a father proposed on April Fool’s Day on purpose, how it felt on July 1 when she started her job at H.K. Porter, who she was with when she visited the San Jacinto Monument. These are conversations I put off, thinking I had time. Now some holes in her history, even just a few of them, have shape. I know what I’m missing.

#scintilla13: the kids' table

Many   of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable   experience that took place while preparing or eating food.

www.scintillaproject.com/prompts

This is not a story. This is just a scene.

For days people had brought food. We ran out of space for it and left some of it out on the porch in the March cold, occasionally picking at bits of it here and there. I thought I was hungry, from time to time. Some autonomic system was. And then I would try to eat, and fail. People kept bringing it, though, tray after tray, and eventually we hit the point in the process where people would leave us alone with our grief. Our grief and our cold cut platters and enough overcooked industrial pasta to feed a family much bigger than our dwindling one.

The four of us went back to the house: my brother and his wife, Myron, and me. We sat at the dining room table and ate. Myron remembers my sister-in-law saying something funny to break the ice. I don’t remember much of anything. There was a tall and very fancy layer cake, one so festive and grotesquely inappropriate that it felt like someone had meant to celebrate something, hadn’t had the heart (or nerve) to do so, and passed the cake on to us in our hour of need. I think it was festooned with tiny chocolate curls. We made conversation, but there is always too much to say and no good way to say it.

So no, I don’t remember much, not enough for a story. I remember the four of us, talking like adults at the dining room table, a place heretofore reserved for special occasions and long, lingering conversations that were not for little ears. Talking like adults—we were adults; there were no children anymore in that house and we had claimed the dining room for ourselves. We were old enough to have been through this before and to remember how much better the food had been last time around, when the death was a different kind of tragedy. I remember the decorative glass of the light fixture, the tablecloth, the china cabinet displaying my mother’s good dishes. The way the coat closet doorknob was hard to close. The view through the window at the backyard. The way it hurt. My God, the way it hurt to not fall apart. There’s a time and a place for falling apart, and it’s not at the dining room table.

#scintilla13: Good.

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 7 prompts, Write about someone who was a mentor for you. We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I had plenty of teachers and adults I looked up to, and lots that were encouraging to me, but I can think of few who truly attempted to mentor me or push me farther than I was already going. The one I’m writing about today is the one I feel made the most difference.

Behind his back, I called him Nich (rhymes with hitch and stitch but never never bitch). Not as an insult; I admired him with every creative urge I had. I wish you could have met him, because that would have meant that we were together back in the 90s on the third floor, trading drafts with each other and trying to predict what he would say when he read them. He said very little, for a professor, someone whose job it was to hold our attention and make us see what we’d been missing. He was not one of those who loved to hear himself speak so much as he loved the writing he assigned, works by the best novelists and story writers in the business. I learned to read the way he wanted me to, which was more carefully and critically than I’d ever been asked to read before. I took every course the man taught, worked my schedule around his, added an extra sixty-mile roundtrip to my week just to take his fiction workshop. I would not have read the Beats or post-Beats so rigorously, seeking order and meaning out of chaos, without him. I would never have read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” three times or Revenge of the Lawn at all. 

Nich was short, for a guy, but he usually wore shitkickers. There was something about his stature and the heels of those shoes that was less Cowboy Gone Yankee and more Prince, somehow, genteel and precise and a little highfalutin. Unlike so many of our instructors, he learned our names, all of them, and always called us Mr. and Miss, possibly in an effort to civilize us. And right when he’d civilized us, just enough, he showed us how to break rules, swiftly and cleanly as breaking a chicken’s neck.

I worked harder for him than I had for any other teacher, ever, possibly because he was so stinting with his praise. A tiny penciled “Good.” in the margin of a paper would carry me for weeks; I still have some of these “Good.”s saved fifteen years later. A question mark, also tiny, also penciled, could wreck me. What had I been thinking? Had I rushed? Had I thought that was right? What would Raymond Carver do?

The answer, almost always, was to throw away the sentence.

Fiction Workshop was the best, most concentrated dose of Nich, and worth every inconvenience. I took it three times: 264, 364, 464. I would have found a way to do it a fourth time if they would have let me. We read weekly, wrote weekly. Stray marks in the margins were there to be agonized over, but the weekly workshop packet was the sweet prize of the course. Every week Nich chose a few of our assignments to put into a photocopied packet for discussion. When he chose mine I felt unstoppable and talented and terrified, and I learned to sit quietly without defending my words even when people didn’t get what I had clearly put down on paper. CLEARLY, Y’ALL. I visited him for office hours after one workshop that didn’t go well, when a story I thought had real potential had been met with indifference by most and hostility by others. “You’re going to have to get used to people discussing your work. It’s going to happen every time you put it out there, and you’re going to be read by a lot of people. That’s a lot of people, some of whom aren’t going to see what I see.” What a difference it was to hear this specific view of my capabilities, instead of the wembley sorts of encouragement I’d gotten from others. And with built-in failure ramifications, the kind you can learn to survive! You’re smart; you can do anything you want in life is not the comfort some people think it is.

At the end of senior year, he recommended me for a prize and assigned me a long final project. He mailed it back to me before I left for Georgia, with a long typewritten letter filled with encouragement and incisive analysis—brusque with my shortcomings and yet approving of my strengths. He recommended a few little magazines that he thought would be a good fit for my work, and wished me, as you do, all the best.

Writing about him today was difficult, and not just because there was so much to him that I could never do him any justice. Mostly, it’s because I feel like I let him down in some way by not having a short story collection and a couple of novels by now, that the curt but bolstering check-ins during his office hours did not result in the kind of work that would have made him proud of me. I have no string of publications, no fellowship, no grants, no MFA. I am not read by a lot of people (although you have Nich’s permission to not enjoy what you read here, and I’m to shut up and take it). At the same time, I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on this particular plan, either. Sometimes when I reread my work, I hear it in his voice, whiskey-dark and southern accented, and sometimes I can picture the spot in the margin where that tiny penciled “Good.” would go.