[narcissism, vanity, exhibitionism, ambition, vanity, vanity, vanity]


Unsolicited Advice (for Eliza Blair)

Much moved today by the writer and scientist Eliza Blair's birthday post. At 25, Blair has already published award-winning science fiction while pursuing a dream to go to the moon. (Via.)

She's worried about the Amazon/Macmillan mess, and about the Obama administration's gutting of manned lunar missions.

I can't say much about the latter, except that it's disappointing. What I want to address is her concern that this most recent tempest in the publishing world's teapot is going to make it impossible for her to write "in a world where it is getting progressively harder to get paid" to do so.

Publishing is a big enmeshed family. Nobody knows for sure who's really dependent on what from whom. You might think writers, as the "content producers" at the very start of the supply chain are its most important part. This idea, while attractive, is not correct.

The most important part of publishing's supply chain, so to speak, is whatever you want to call this sacred and ornery mystery that once and a while bursts through the fog and confusion and incarnates in the form of a story on your page or screen.

It belongs to no one. This is as it should be. Sometimes the incarnated mystery sees the light of day, in the form of publication. Sometimes it does not. Sometimes it takes a long time. Blake had to wait for Rossetti. And so on.

I once did an informal survey of dates of first publication for modern novelists. Conclusions: For early success (before age 30) in writing, it helps to be white, male, and rich. Many, if not most, women writers published little to nothing until their 40s, after peak child-care years.

This survey was by no means definitive, but I took heart from it. I was 27, with three writing workshops under my belt, a handful of short stories on my hard drive and precious little else to recommend me to readers, not to mention editors and agents.

I made a spreadsheet and began to send stories out, keeping track of the responses. For every rejection that came back, I sent out another short story. For every rejection that came back with a personal note, usually scrawled across the form response, I made a note in my spreadsheet: This person likes my work. Eventually I started to publish, but I want to insist that this point is neither here nor there. With enough persistence, it's possible to publish a great deal, but you have to keep writing and sending stuff out.

What is a writer? By my lights, you are a writer if you write and you publish. But by my lights, publication includes sending "unpublished" material to editors and agents, who form, in essence, an early focus group for the work. Participating in workshops counts, too. For me, anyway.

My mother wrote short stories on her typewriter while my sister and I were at school. She participated vigorously in local writing workshops. Her stuff was really good. Due to living in a small town, I've met a few of her teachers, who have also been mine on occasion, and to a one, they remember and admire her talent. She could write short, which is a great gift, and she was funny. I am a different sort of writer -- more digressive, more interested in the possibilities of the sentence, and more open, I think, to mystery and ambiguity in my work. My mother's stories all ended the same way, with the evildoer, usually a younger woman who is first aided and then hampered by her disarming innocence, getting her comeuppance, often in a rather surprising way.

You can guess who the "evildoer" was, can't you? Like I said, she was funny. Often I felt like the person she was trying to reach with her stories was me, and the message she was trying to convey was: The world doesn't actually revolve around you, kiddo. You can see how the message could seem a little ambiguous, I hope. I struggled to write in her shadow; I still do. This struggle with shadows -- whatever form it takes in a writer's personal life -- is exactly the point.

It is easy to undermine writers with ideas about money, because so few writers make a living from their work. "None but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," is one of my nightmare refrains. But people do lots of things without a thought for recompense. Having children, for instance, is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Yes, you'll need to support yourself while you write; that's part of what it means, at this point in history, to be a writer. The other part is exposing yourself to a lot of rejection. Admittedly, sacrifice and rejection are awful, but that energy can be channeled usefully back into your writing. (This is why, when a rejection comes in the mail, you should send another piece of writing out as soon as possible.) Indifference helps. Armor helps. Experience helps.

My larger point: Amazon and Macmillan are a sideshow. If you miss it, don't worry: there will be another one just like it next month, or next week, or next year. I'm pretty sure it's safe to ignore, in favor of the other mysteries that are clamoring for your attention. Only you know what they are -- and people like me are out here, enthusiastically anticipating your new work.

Postscript: Writer and literary agent Nathan Bransford has collected some interesting responses from writers to the general problem addressed in this post: if you write, are you crazy?

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Humiliation du Jour

One Friday afternoon some eighteen years ago, I punched my time card to begin my shift at the Cafe at Brooks, a now-defunct restaurant on Providence's East Side. I was nineteen years old, a rising college junior with a double major in English literature and philosophy, who was looking forward to hitting the books -- Proust, Joyce and Faulkner, that semester -- in the fall with a nice cushion of cash in the bank.

The cafe used to advertise on local radio. Each spot would end with the tagline, "The Cafe at Brooks! Where you just might fall in love with your waitress."

Well, you might, I suppose. The waitresses (all women) were typically Brown undergraduates: bright and articulate, with good middle-class manners and enough level-headed wherewithal to get a three or four-course meal to your table and then deliver the check, usually calculated correctly, without mishaps.

Most of the time.

The afternoon was slow, and we were seating folks in round-robin fashion, distributing comers among the handful of waitresses on the floor. When my turn rolled around, I delivered menus and water to a couple whose aura of ill-will -- toward themselves, toward each other, perhaps toward the fact of simply being alive -- strongly suggested to my admittedly quite mercantile mind that I should not expect much by way of a tip.

Two choices are available to a waitress in this situation. First, you can start doing schtick. It is intrusive, but sometimes a charming smile, a joke, a little extra solicitousness can make the difference, tip-wise, between a five percent insult and a twenty percent gift. Or you can resolve to work as quietly and professionally as possible, leaving the couple space to work out whatever nasty business is between them. This second strategy is more useful when the vibe is really angry, because in that case, being exceptionally nice means making yourself a target for the bad energy that's already going around.

Snap decisions are everything in restaurant service. That night, I really didn't want anyone to be mean to me. I had just escaped a rotten argument with my mother, who'd interrupted my reading of Stanley Cavell's latest in order to harangue me about the nerve I'd shown in dropping to a size four that summer. (I'd been on a steady diet of coffee and crusts leftover from bread baskets at work, because I was too cheap to shell out for a real meal at the Cafe where employees got only a fifty percent discount.) In short: I didn't want to be an emotional lightning rod for this angry pair. I was feeling tender enough already. So, naturally, I went for strategy #2: all business.

After giving them a minute to look at the menu, I readied my pen over my order pad. "Have you decided?"

The woman placed her order; I no longer remember what she wanted. The man said, "Pepper steak."

"Pepper steak," I repeated. Pepper steak was what went into a grinder in the sub shop near my house on Wiseacre Drive. Chopped steak and peppers heated on a grill and dumped into a hoagy roll, cheese and onions optional. You couldn't get a pepper steak at Cafe at Brooks. The fare was fancier than that.

"That's not on the menu," I said. "But if you tell me exactly what you'd like, I'm sure I can get the kitchen to make it for you."

"Pepper steak!" he said angrily. And then, more carefully: "Steak oh pwahv."

What in the world was steak oh pwahv? I'd never heard of steak oh pwahv. And he really sounded strange. I looked at him closely, wondering if he was having a stroke.

He pointed to a line on the menu, at a dish for which I'd never taken an order: Steak au poivre.

"Oh!" I smiled. It was all clear now. "You mean steak oh poyvree!"

Well, I didn't speak French. And growing up, though I'd read a lot, I didn't often discuss my reading. Difficult words could take on strange phonetic identities in my imagination. I wasn't always able to correctly infer the sound of a word from how it looked on the page.

Something flashed in his eyes: faint amusement, tinged with ridicule, or maybe it was just the sun pouring in through the skylight, hot as a pretentious cafe in hell, hot as the shameful blush that I felt spreading from my neck to my hairline. His wife looked daggers at me over her Perrier, as if she'd finally found incontrovertible proof of some hypothesis she'd been secretly entertaining for a long time: Men don't make passes at girls who wear glasses -- and the ones who don't wear glasses, at least not while on shift at the Cafe at Brooks, are pathetically seducing your husband by screwing up his order for steak oh poyvree.

Or maybe I'd just punctured her hope that a meal on the town, in this town, might for once be a not completely shabby and cut-rate experience.

I don't know where I got the courage to follow up properly and ask how he'd like his steak au poivre cooked, but I did.

I wrote it all down and scuttled into the back, where my boss, who'd heard the whole exchange, was bent double with laughter. I laughed, too. Because otherwise I might have jumped into the fryolator.

Afterward, the angry couple wanted neither coffee nor dessert, and for this small mercy I was heartily glad. I dropped the check and they left, silent and sour as ever. My tip was ten percent exactly.

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What She Said

"Perhaps all unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways, but in any home where one person usurps or is given more than a fair share of the oxygen, the others must find ways to go on breathing: denial, secrets, control, use, anger... As a writer, no question my anxiety, my concern for my children, my sometimes longing to escape and leave no forwarding address, were the initial energies that caused me to try to make this world on the page, but right from the beginning, the story came to me
as a novel ..." -- Ginnah Howard, author of Night Navigation

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RIP, Scott Wesley Buchholz Sanchez

RIP, Scott Wesley Buchholz Sanchez, murdered by his mother, who was suffering from postpartum depression, schizophrenia, and the chaos of being partnered with someone also suffering from schizophrenia. In the weeks after giving birth, it seems she succumbed to pressure to breastfeed, which meant going off her meds.

I doubt Sanchez's mother was a "killer mom," though this is the media meme. In fact she sounds like a mother who really wanted to do the right thing for her baby. She was under a lot of pressure, due to circumstances and illness. She may have been overly trusting, or confused, or desperate. And she got some bad advice.

Breastfeeding might be the right choice for some mothers and babies, depending on the mother, the baby, and the circumstances. But it is not the only way to feed a baby. I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to suggest that it was not the right choice for Otty and Scott Sanchez.

One line from the article really stuck out: "When in doubt, many [doctors] are reluctant to prescribe drugs, especially ones considered optional, like antidepressants, to pregnant or nursing women."

This woman suffered from psychosis! How about formula-feeding while keeping her on her meds?

Substitute "chemotherapy" for "antidepressants" in that quote and there's the crux of the problem. Since when is treatment for mental illness optional?

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The End

Writing my novel, I left the hardest scene for last, and there's nothing left for it now except to write it, or give up.

I doubt it could have turned out any other way.

Time narrows to a point, specifically my mother's right pupil on lithium-stelazine-mellaril and I can say with complete confidence that the gimlet gleam in her eye has nothing whatsoever to do with me.

Still I need a paragraph, another hundred words...

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Nostalgia Item

Woke up with a song in my head. When I was seven or eight, my musical grandfather taught me to pick out the melody to "Pagan Love Song" on the piano. Thirty years later, I get to wondering about the tune -- who wrote it, what for, and how did my grandfather come to hear it. No answers on any score, but I did find a YouTube clip of hoofer Jack Imel performing the song on Lawrence Welk, circa 1958.

What silliness! And my grandfather was hip to it. Did he know, teaching me that song, that he was laying down a special sort of memory of him -- his sense of mischief, of fun -- encoded through ear and hands? Doubly indelible, and thank goodness for that.

Via Boingboing.

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My Deficiencies

I am sitting with my mother in the nursing home.

"I'm so tired," I complain.

She looks me over. I feel about eight years old.

"Do you feel worse walking up hills?"

Come to think of it, yes.

"I walked up College Street today. I felt like it took more effort than usual," I said. "I thought it was the heat."

"You have an iron deficiency," she announces. She is more confident than most doctors. "Eat more meat."

She's probably right. I've been anemic before, and I do feel that way -- lethargic, and steaks and cheeseburgers seem oddly palatable. Still, I resist the Floradix. Is this why we have doctors, because we don't listen to our mothers?

Or is that just what my mother would say?

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The Discreet Charm of the Schizophrenic?

In today's NYT, Dr. Elyssa Ely discovers that schizophrenia ain't all bad, at least not when you've got late-stage metastatic lung cancer. Paranoid? Psychotic? Poorly medicated? Oh well, look on the bright side! At least you can have nice delusions while you're getting your MRIs.

Why, oh why, is it still possible to write so patronizingly about this particular form of mental illness? A schizophrenic in the grip of a delusion is suffering, not cute. When Dr. Ely succumbs to a patient's charming hallucination, I have to wonder to whom the real delusion belongs.

I suspect-- having watched my mother suffer with this for all my life -- that the flat affect and other negative symptoms of schizophrenia may actually tend to elicit such unempathic responses from caregivers. (Which is not to blame the victim.) Poor caregiver response creates paranoid (or perhaps merely justified) poor responses from the patient, including dangerous noncompliance when it comes to medication. Undermedicated, the paranoid noncompliance just gets worse. And then, as they say, we are off to the races...



FTD/Pick's Disease in the News

Today's NYT carried a story about a woman with fronto-temporal dementia who became especially creative after becoming ill.

Wish I could say my mother's experience is like this.

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Moominland Midwinter

Among other things, Tove Jansson's Moominland Midwinter is a sweet, funny fable of winter giving way to spring. In other words -- in more clinical or medical words -- it can be read as a story about depression and its ending. Which, perhaps not surprisingly given the pharmacopeia in my cupboard, is something I'm thinking about a lot these days.
It's winter in Moomin Valley, and all the Moomins are asleep. All the summer toys are stowed in the bathing house; sheets cover the furniture to protect it from dust; the stove is cold; the pantry is full of jars of Moominmamma's strawberry jam, waiting for the first spring breakfast. Moominmamma herself is snoring. The sun dips below the horizon and stays there.

A typical depressive, Moomintroll bolts awake in the middle of the night. The winter world is terrible. It's dark, it's cold, there's no one to play with, the sun is gone and it seems like it will never come back.

Moomintroll ventures outside. (Apparently his depression is not the agoraphobic kind.) He meets some funny characters in the shuttered bathing-house -- notably the steady, practical, if somewhat unimaginative Too-Ticky, who spends her time ice-fishing, and the irrepressible if somewhat self-seeking Little My (pictured, left), who responds to the apparent frost-bite death of a squirrel by observing that his tail would make a wonderful muff.

In their company, Moomintroll learns lots about the peculiar winter world of Moomin Valley, whose inhabitants, as charming as they are, correspond in various ways to the less charming bits of oneself. For instance, there is the fearsome Ancestor who is locked in the cupboard and should not, under any circumstances, be let out; there is the mysterious, cantankerous Dweller Under the Sink. Moomintroll must deal with these characters; they are either the keys to his release from sadness, or they are important distractions from that sadness, things to keep him busy while he waits for spring, just as one does wait, in a sort of antic hope, for the anti-depressant to kick in.

At the height of the winter, the creatures gather for a bonfire, a signal to convince the sun to come back. Too-Ticky asks Moomintroll to help, by sacrificing the "garden seat," a bench of which he is for some reason enormously protective, as fuel for the fire. Reluctantly, he relinquishes it, in exchange for a promise he has extracted from Too-Ticky: He will be allowed to meet the Ancestor.

But the Ancestor is not taking visitors. Frustrated, Moomintroll complains to Too-Ticky. She introduces him to the Dweller Under the Sink. Good-natured Moomintroll compliments the Dweller on his enormously bushy eyebrows. The Dweller takes offense, in a language that Moomintroll is dismayed to discover he cannot understand. He repeats the Dweller's words, in an effort to make things better that only succeeds in making them worse. The garden seat goes up in flames. A large cold creature named the Groke accidentally sits on the fire, extinguishing it. All the sacrifice is for nothing.

"Such things happen," says Too-Ticky, philosophically. Moomintroll is not convinced. He retires to a corner, frustrated and stuck. At this point, he might take some Prozac, or see a therapist.

Who should arrive next but -- the Hemulen! Blustery, vigorous, the Hemulen is a dynamo on skis who is suspiciously addicted to fresh air and physical thrills. In an effort to shake the group out of their winter blahs, he cheerfully recommends exercise, especially swims in freezing water. Naturally, everyone hates him -- except Little My, who sticks by him long enough to learn how to ski, and then, having no further use for him, skis off on her own.

The Hemulen's ambiguous success with Little My notwithstanding, the group decides they must free themselves from the Hemulen. But no one wants to be mean. So Moomintroll is given the task of kindly and tactfully sending the Hemulen on his way. But Moomintroll's nerve fails him. He finds he just can't do it. (Nobody said psychotherapy, which also includes resistance to psychotherapy, would be easy.) In the end, this is just as well: The Hemulen makes himself useful after all, by saving the life of the least of their community, a sad creature named "Salome the Little Creep." (Might the name be a clue to the psychoanalytic schema I'm claiming is at work here?) For this good deed, Moomintroll makes the Hemulen a gift of the last jar of Moominmamma's wonderful strawberry jam, a great prize, and the Hemulen leaves, on good terms with all, followed by the dog, Sorry-oo, who has finally found a master he can tolerate.

Inevitably, spring comes, the sun returns, and, crucially, Moominmamma wakes up. The house is a mess, all her jam is gone, so is her silver tray (Little My used it for a sled), some rugs, her furniture. She is delighted -- there is less to clean, less to worry about. Far from misbehaving, Moomintroll has done everything right.

"Mother, I love you terribly," says Moomintroll, grateful for Moominmamma's loving, skilled and discreet transformation of bad things into good.

"I love you terribly."

That is, of course, exactly what one wants to say and to hear. Among other things, the story is about two mingled wishes: the wish to offer a love one knows is flawed and terrible, and the wish to be made the object of love in return, despite or perhaps even (oh, terrible hope!) because of one's terribleness. Jansson's free, generous genius gives form to both wishes -- and then, bless her, she gratifies them fully. It's probably worth noting that Jansson dedicated this volume of the Moomin series to her mother. Can stories cure depression? Can lost mothers be brought back to life? No, and no. But there's something to be said for the comfort on offer here, for such consolation.

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Things Necessary

My mother has been in and out of the hospital since October. Right now she's in a nursing home, recovering from her broken knee, and the subsequent infection she got somewhere inside RI's labyrinthine system for the care of the elderly and infirm. Today, for the first time since her dementia diagnosis, and in between terrible bouts of vomiting, she asked me for a paper and pencil. She wanted to make a list. Here is what she wrote: Things necessary.

I left some time later, & spent the afternoon with Jane, doing certain very necessary things, like taking a walk in the woods, shopping for summer dresses, and eating cones of vanilla chip ice cream. I did not write, although I thought about it, in between remembering my mother, working at her easel or the typewriter during the long summer afternoons, or driving me around, trying to distract me, on the night I didn't have a date for the ninth grade dance. The ice cream parlor where I sat with Jane was also where I worked my fifteenth summer, and as I looked out at the village center, time stopped, briefly, and then went backwards. Everything was just the way it was twenty years ago, right down to the trees and the grass and the robins in the shrubbery. I pressed my lips to Jane's head; she licked up the last of her ice cream; and it seemed that my father was still waiting in the parking lot with the engine running while I polished the last of the silver ice cream bins.

It is hard to reconcile this sadness and nostalgia with what I also know to be true: that during my childhood and adolescence I was alone and silent a great deal; that school, which might have been a refuge, was violent and frightening; and that my mother, also, was violent and frightening.

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A Vague, Meandering Post

This year's Booker prizewinner Kiran Desai reports that her mother, the novelist Anita Desai, helped her write the novel that won the Booker, and I do not doubt it. One of my treasured possessions is a copy of the very first short story I published, marked up with Anita Desai's handwritten notes, in delicate purple pen; she was indeed a wonderful teacher. My own mother -- also a writer, also a teacher, also my teacher -- broke her knee last week, a problem that required major surgery under general anesthesia to correct. She is recovering in a hospital not far from her old house, where I, too, spent a portion of my childhood. The place figures in my novel the way it figures in my dreams -- crabgrass, poison oak, swing shifts, linoleum. I am tempted to say, dismissively, You get the picture, but I don't because it isn't true. In Joyce Carol Oates' new collection, High Lonesome, Oates does get the picture -- she has her finger on something important that otherwise resists lyric description, & fits better into the more familiar and more distanced and antiseptic discourses about jobs, economic insecurity, mandatory overtime, minimum wage. A place where reading novels (let alone writing them) is suspect and barely tolerated when there is so much else to do. I read Oates' stories with a tight chest, thinking about Oates' childhood (she was no stranger, I bet, to linoleum), her hunger for books, and about the books she has written, the sheer quantity of them, as if, finding the world lacking the books she wanted to read, she simply made them herself, as you might make furniture to suit an odd-shaped room. Also thinking about the fact of Oates' childlessness. Kiran Desai says she won't have children because then she would have to break her writerly solitude and "be sweet" , which gets in the way of her writing. Her mother, I want to remind her, wrote wonderful books with four children underfoot, along with teaching duties and office hours, including one session in which she gently insisted that yes, I had talent and yes, it was not only worth developing but probably the most important thing I could do -- and her encouragement made all the difference.

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You go looking for trouble, you find it. That's true enough, I guess. Last week, noodling around with some writing I did way back when on breastfeeding, I was startled to discover, or rediscover, some distressing reports about environmental toxins and breast milk. In Europe, where breastfeeding is widespread, and maternity leaves are more accommodating of breastfeeding mothers, testing of breastmilk for toxicity is, evidently, commonplace. Not so here, and the toxin load in American women's breast milk reflects this lack of monitoring. I've got more to say about this problem, but not now. As a result of this reading, I got interested in toxin loads and rates of cancer incidence, and this brought me to SEERwhich has statistics on incidence rates of different kinds of cancer around the US.

Can we take, as writ, that some kinds of cancer -- cancers of filtration organs, like the kidney and liver, and fatty tissue, like the brain and breast -- are directly related to toxin exposure? We know toxins accumulate in fatty tissue, like the breast and the brain, and in the filter organs, like the liver, the lungs, and the kidneys. We also know that childhood cancers are becoming more common, and that children -- due to their size -- are uniquely vulnerable to toxin exposures. They are, perhaps, sentinels. And so I notice, upon looking into SEER's database, that the incidence of bladder cancer in Rhode Island (29-30 cases per 100,000) is significantly higher than the national average (21 cases per 100,000).

Rates of bladder cancer are important because the bladder, as a kind of holding tank for ingested fluid, is continually exposed to the environment. If it's out there, it's in here, too. The chlorine in drinking water -- that's a carcinogen. By itself, it poses enough of a problem. But it can also interact with other organic contaminants already present in the water, producing organochlorines including known carcinogens like trihalomethanes (e.g., chloroform).

So the watershed feeding the Scituate Reservoir, which supplies most of Providence's tap water, better be pretty pure. But I don't think it is. First of all, roads run all through it. Those roads are reasonably well-traveled and they are liberally de-iced in the winter. The sodium and chloride run into the water. I don't know how this material reacts when undergoes routine chlorination, but it would be good to know.

Moreover, the reservoir's drainage basin includes parts of Cranston and Johnston, towns where there's a lot of industry, and a lot of toxic chemicals. Some of them have been reported. It's not hard to find these places on a map; some are close to bodies of water that (though I'm no expert on the state's hydrography) seem to be part of the reservoir's drainage basin. I don't know how many of these chemicals leach into the water system, and I don't know which, if any of them, turn into organochlorines when the water is chlorinated. I know the water from the reservoir is aerated, which would in theory reduce the amount of toxins in the water by allowing them to vaporize -- but only if the aeration happens after chlorination, not before. (Plus, aeration sends these compounds back into the atmosphere where we can inhale them instead of drinking them.)

I know I'm looking for trouble. And I know that I used to live not too far from the Gowanus Canal, which might as well have glowed, it was so polluted. That didn't bother me, but the reservoir does. The cancer rates do. Hmph.

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