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November did spawn a monster; it was a good thing to call this project thus instead of going with a portmanteau. I have so little to say these past few days; my brain is a little island in a fog and all the idea-boats sail right past it. I'm uncreative and I'm craving stimuli--feta and gorgonzola, viscous port, even the cold on my arms. Sensation feels good right now. I couldn't find enough of it to write anything last night, which is ridiculous because have you seen these posts? They are not exactly deathless prose here. It's not like I have to meet some high standard. Still, it's more writing than I've done in this space in a year and if I've missed a few days, well, I've missed them. Today the monster has a thousand tentacles and no head to speak of.

The thing I have thought about today, in between every other passing non-thought, is the article that went wide yesterday, Claire Vaye Watkins' essay at Tin House called "On Pandering"--it is, I have to say, required reading for everyone, whether you write or not. Even if you do not write, you have a voice and you interact in the world and you shape your own experience--the telling of it to yourself, your own memory--both purposefully and accidentally, you shape it. And if you do not write, you read (or I would probably not know you), and you should know how the sausage of our current literary world is made.

(I write this, knowing that there is practically a 100% chance that if you are reading this, you are a woman, that I cannot imagine even now, while I am thinking generously about myself and my writing, a man arriving at this space and giving it more than the most cursory glance. It makes me feel vapid and insignificant, even after reading the article.)

The reading of this made me think of so many things, not least of which is the question of whom I write toward, whom I expect to read my writing. I am not talking about the blog, which is a weird hybrid thing that has both all audience and no audience, an echo chamber and a stage and the little closet in my childhood bedroom that was all of about two feet wide. I am talking about the writing I do that goes nowhere at the moment but into Scrivener and to a couple of beta readers. I once wrote toward a short man with an epic beard and cowboy boots, the man who first treated me like my writing was work and not a pastime. (I haven't done his memory honor; I haven't written enough or hard enough or carefully enough.) There was a time I thought I wrote for Annie Dillard, but I was wrong; I could not see enough of her to know where to aim these words even though I have read as much of her writing as I could find. (She knows how to keep secrets, Annie Dillard, and I respect her for it.)

I cannot write for everyone. I have to choose. In my heart, I may have done so, invented a mental reader who would get it the way I want her to, who would be generous where I find flaws and critical where I'm indulgent. That ideal reader will only take me so far, and so I widen my view and put you in there, you who have reading desires I cannot fathom, you who will pick up a book for any one of a thousand reasons and give me the benefit of the doubt for a few pages, weigh her engagement, and read on or close the cover and walk away. I am rolling dice when I think of what might please you, and I have spent all my luck on being born in the first world in a healthy time with white skin, with parents who didn't damage me to excess. But how incredible will it be to please you, if I can? This is a thought that makes me want to work.

And now the music:

the definite article

Back when I first met Myron I told him I had a blogish thing. Or maybe I said that I "wrote online" to be cagey and secret because it was still a thing to be awkward about, not because I was writing about him. (Most of the people who read that blogish thing saw my post about my wedding and said "uh, you were seeing someone?" because they had no idea.) He was cool about it. He read a bunch of blogs himself. He asked what I wrote about and I said it was limited because I didn't like writing about my students, even obliquely, and I didn't like being too personal. I know I tried to get across that I used it to process things or write about events and the way I felt about them beyond "that was good"/"that was bad" and he said "so basically you're writing The Personal Essay" and you could hear the initial caps in that phrase, so there they are as I write this down now, those caps. And for someone with an English degree, who probably should have some familiarity with The Personal Essay as a format, I was very unsure if he was right or not, so I probably changed the subject to something like pie or the cows that went past my patio door.

It's the "The" that got me then, and that gets me now when I think about this; no one would ever say "So you are writing The Novel" or "You are writing The Screenplay" or "You should write The Free Verse instead of The Villanelle because your rhymes are tired/wired/inspired/mired". I do not have an argument when I open up a blank document to write things down here; I have no point to prove. Your average Kimperative post does not have a mission. To say that I am writing personal essays here feels arrogant, even ludicrous. When I look at how The Blog as a vehicle for expression changed even in the past five years, I can tell you what else I'm not doing. I'm not writing The Family Life Chronicle, because my husband and in-laws don't write blogs and that's them saying that their lives are their own business. I'm not writing the Styled Enviable Life Catalog because my house is a wreck right now, it's pretty unstyled and average looking even when it's not wrecked, and because I think that stuff is boring. I'm not writing The Sponsored Post to get a kickback on something I think you might buy because I told you to or to improve some brand's SEO. I'm not writing you The Life Advice Encouragement Piece, because you shouldn't take life advice from someone who doesn't have their shit together, who doesn't know you, who doesn't love you, or who acts like success is a matter of reading The Life Advice Encouragement Piece and then sharing it on Facebook, or who is trying to make a career for themselves in the Life Advice Encouragement Piece department. Take life advice from your grandma and if she is gone, think about what she would tell you with all the love she had in her heart for you, and do that, and if your grandma was a jerk then think about what you would tell someone you love, and then do that. (Uh oh, that actually does look like advice, doesn't it?) Anyway, you can see what I mean, I think. Once you put that definite article on something, it becomes a format that other people are using too, and you either fit that format or you don't.

(I might start writing The Book Review again, but if I do, they won't have affiliate-type links, just like my old ones didn't. Let me know what you think about that, seriously, because they have a lot in common with The Sponsored Post, which I dislike. I understand that some people have problems with bloggers writing positive book reviews when there aren't any negative reviews in their body of work, but I'm sorry, this is not a job and I can't finish books I don't like any more and I'm not going to give bandwidth to a book I think is shitty just so people think my positive reviews aren't biased. There's just no time for that in my life.)

Sometimes I write The Recipe. Mostly I just think you should read Roxane Gay and Albert Burneko for The Recipe. They think about cooking the way I do, because your brain still works while you cook and you think about a thousand other things in the process. Albert's are flow charts in paragraph form, with options embedded for almost every step instead of rules. Roxane is writing The Personal Essay while she does The Recipe, because the universe speaks through her and I'm not even exaggerating. These two are the opposite of everything that sucks about food blogs. 

snow-covered beach and lake, the first time I had reason to use the polarizing filter to bring out the blue in the sky. 

What happens is that I don't write here for a while and it is because I do not know how to tell you what I've thought, or I think I do and I hear its purposelessness and its lack of clincher sentence and I think "no", or because I have stared at other paragraphs and slaughtered them like that better-than-Jax-Teller dude on Vikings, or because I do not want to take a photo to go with a post, or because I should be spending my time writing other things, or because I have not read your blog in two months and maybe you are taking offense. It is maybe because I fucked off and went on a ride with my photo group up to a lake and wound up in snow up to my crotch. I held my camera high above my head to protect it from snow and that meant I could not walk, so I looked like a sea lion in my parka trying to bounce my way out of three feet of snow and it was ridiculous and embarrassing and fun. It is maybe because things got fucked up and they are not my stories to tell, but those fucked up things are the only things I can think about and I am simmering in fucked up until I am fork-tender. It is also maybe because it is not important for me to write here when I have a deadline and some pages to submit this month. 

I took those pages this weekend and I demolished them and rewrote them in first person. This is a lousy thing to do when you have promised to send them to someone who is patiently waiting for them and has better things to do than read your work. Whether this makes sense in the end is for some future version of me to answer. For right now, I only know the sound of the words in my head was different; something was more right. I have spent years writing sentences with "I" as the subject. Maybe I have broken my third person. Maybe this is not such a bad thing; maybe my third person is a relic or flawed in some way. Maybe it's just wrong for these pages. (I have crises of conscience about which point of view to use. This is another reason I will not write you The Life Advice Encouragement Piece.) 

I am writing The Overlong Overconjunctionated Sentence, over and over again. I am writing The Weekend Update Email. I am writing The Partial, in First Person. I am writing The Squealing Fan Mail in response to The Thank-You Email. I am writing The Shopping List and The Birthday Card and The Gchat Extended Metaphor. And I guess I am writing The Personal Essay, maybe? Does it matter if I am or if I'm not, if it's on a reputable website with an editor and ads and professional writers, if you like it or if it's too long or boring? I hit up Google 'cause Bing sucks and I typed in "the personal essay" without Myron's caps but with his definite article, and I saw a result that said "A short work of autobiographical nonfiction characterized by a sense of intimacy and a conversational manner." This is intimate, to me, to show you my brain and how it works with all these damned conjunctions, one piece snaking off after another without a breath, and because I have a degree of familiarity with more than half of the people who will read it. This is conversational, even though there is no room for you to say anything until it's all done; this is what it sounds like to talk to me. It's not the first time I thought he was full of crap about something and he wound up right. 

saudade

This is long. I'm sorry, but there is so much to say. I'll skip adding a photo because I know it will just make things feel longer.

I had a different post in mind to write this week, but Monday took me by surprise.

And then it was like any other death, and when I clicked "save entry" for the last time there, I dissolved into cold water.


OpenDiary is where I cut my teeth writing for strangers. There were more adults there than on Diaryland, and a more entrenched community by the time I started writing there in 2000. It was in the site TOS that personally identifying information was never to be used on the site, so we all stuck to our pseudonyms with almost fetishistic fervor, each one encased in square brackets. And because of this--because of the anonymity the whole community held sacred--we let go. We wrote things we would never have told our families, our friends, anyone. They were not blogs, these accounts. (Blog. What a word. So harsh, so public. And LiveJournal! So big and flashy and full of teenagers.) They were us, transformed into words, with some of the ugliest, clumsiest web design you would ever find anywhere.

Maybe you have to understand what it was like for me at the time. I was teaching on the reservation. My brother had recently died and I had nuked my relationship to head west. I needed to do harder work than I had been doing. The students worked hard for me in exchange. When they lit up, I was able to as well. That was healing, and so was driving for an hour into a part of the world where there was absolutely nothing around but sky, earth, rock, and stray cows looking for something to eat. I needed to figure out what meaning there was in a world where teenage boys died in car crashes, and I learned that lesson over and over again because there I was, in a place where I met teenage boys and they drew motorcycle logos on their test papers and they died and they left empty chairs in my classroom.

We all brought our own "what it was like for me at that time." Few people bothered to create personae, which is not to say we didn't all have different writing voices. But there was no need to be fake or fabulous. We were safe in our dullness and trainwreckness and rawness and happiness, and our friendships were real. It was something that kept us coming back even when we had nothing to write about, because OD was where our friends were. At the same time, many of us kept our presence there completely hidden from people in our real lives. This made it awkward when we had to admit to husbands or mothers or non-wired friends that we were meeting someone from our "online writer's group" for lunch. There was nothing like reaching the point where you would breach anonymity to look another diarist in the face, eat a meal, ride a fucking Jet Boat, anything you could, to be with someone who knew you to that extent.

I started my first writing prompt project there. I called it "the third floor" after the place where I used to spend my time in college, sitting on the floor in the hallway, scribbling away. Two prompts every week, a rush of writing afterward, just another fun thing to do, another reason to spend more time on OD. I can say this now, looking back--it didn't feel wrong to spend that much time on the internet when we were, with every entry, sending out genuine tendrils of connection with each other. Those tendrils caught me and kept me tethered once my mother was gone. Diarists sent me CDs filled with music to keep me company in the days afterward. They talked about the loss of their own mothers. I tried to give back when I read about the tragedies and incalculable losses and pains of their lives. The exhaustion, frustration, and mundane pointlessness of parenting, all of which they took on gladly. And the glee, man, the fucking joy of simply writing down what had mattered that day, of dumping out a brainful of bother before bedtime.

By the time Heather and I started writing publicly together in 2010, I had already begun to withdraw from OD. People I loved had moved on; ten years had passed since I started writing online. I wanted to attach my own name to what I wrote. I wanted to limit myself to topics that weren't so personal and build in some kind of distance. By this point OD had already suffered a major hacking and long-term outages, and I wanted to be responsible for my own backups and my own layout. I wanted to take the risk of failing better, or at least bigger. I kept my account but rarely wrote. When I would come back with an update, the feedback was generous, instantaneous, and validating. A friend said "Sometimes, I can't breathe when I read you." I don't write things on kimperative that are designed to suffocate you. But in the back of my mind, I was always sure that I could.

Now the site is going to shut down. This is not a surprise. It barely clung to life the past few years and outages and failures were routine. I certainly considered myself Over OD for a long while. It's one thing to leave of your own volition, and another altogether to be told that someday (when? *shrug* TIIC won't say), before two weeks pass, it will all be gone. 

And yet I'm okay that it's ending. OD taught me how to write as much as any workshop did. It taught me how much negative shit I could say about your boyfriend without crossing a line. It taught me, above all else, what it is to be human, and that means coming to terms with what you can keep and what you can't and being grateful down to your marrow for your enviable blessings. My time there was a blessing I never could have understood until I walked away from it. I downloaded all my entries and then wrote one more, which I ended like this:

I am writing this today and not downloading it, because I like that it will get swallowed up and will vanish along with so much else. I like that OD will become a black hole. I like being forced to let go of things; it's good for me. Otherwise my life is like that (maybe apocryphal?) DFW quote, everything I've ever let go of has claw marks on it. Without fail, I was always the one making those three dumb running lurches after something that was already gone. People, diaries, buses that came earlier than they should have. There is always mood music for those lurches. They are my favorite parts of everything.

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.

#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.