What Jane Wants to Do Most at AWP 2016

“Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.” —Toni Morrison

2016 entered with expectations. The Year of the Monkey and the year Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar was also the year of my first AWP appearance since graduation, lucky number seven. I imagined how this sequel would unfold in Los Angeles: me with colorful business cards, me with a freshly-printed novel manuscript in my tote, me with the pitch scribbled across my life and head and heart line.

Not again.

Three years have passed since I last attended, a literary tradition with a couple soul sisters. I registered. I saved book and cocktail money. I compiled a list of writers and lit mags to hunt. I organized a conference schedule. I arranged plans with friends, made promises.

Not again.

I failed myself in all of those ways. No business cards because I barely have a business. No novel manuscript because it’s not in a printable, shareable state, let alone queryable or pitchable.

Not again.

Even after I was content arriving as myselfa work-in-progress, empty handed but full hearted—I couldn’t even succeed at that.

Not again.

Once again, money is a thing. This time, my bank account lacks deposits, and there are student loans and weddings and a burned-out tail light. I have credit cards and a modest savings but me, understanding the current state of things, cannot part with my tiny, high-interest securities.

Not again.

This is not the worst thing to happen to me. Not. Even. Close. Not this year. Or this month. I know how quickly things can turn, so I count my blessings. I kiss Waylon. I visit the library. I continue editing. I sit in the sun. I pass on the conference.

Not again.

I hope by sharing the things my cells will miss that I can hunch among the audiences, among friends, at booths and tables in spirit.

Thursday

  • 1:30 pm to 2:45 pm – The Violence of the Page featuring Lucy Corin, Maggie Nelson, Brian Evenson, Ben Weissman, and Fred D’Aguiar. I bought Maggie Nelson‘s Bluets in Seattle last year, and I need to sit in the presence of the woman who experienced then thought then wrote, “Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness. I am still looking for the beauty in that.”
  • 4:30 pm to 5:45 pm – American Tropics featuring Patrick Rosal, Tiphanie Yanique, Willie Perdomo, Christina Olivares, and Brandy Nalani McDougall. Because Hawai’i, and Land of Love and Drowning.
  • 7:00 pm to 9:30 pm at Wolf and Crane Bar – Crossing the Line: Genre-Curious Readings featuring Lily Hoang, Nicole Walker, and others, oh my! I’m a Japanese whisky virgin and who isn’t genre-curious?

Friday

Saturday

This year’s theme, for me, seems to be newness. My What-Jane-Wants-to-Do-Most-at-AWP-2016 list has shed a lot of my long-term obsessions. Maybe I’m exhausted with the familiar, balancing-work-and-the-creative-life anxieties, the craft of drafts upon drafts. Even though it is comforting to revisit kindred spirits, hearts that beat and minds that think in similar ways, I need something else, but I’m not sure what. There is a lesson here.

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Looking Back, Jane Resolves

“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.” ―Maya Angelou

Aloha-Goodbye 2014

Every New Year’s Eve, I fashion the same resolution. No, not to lose ten pounds. I vow to be a better version of my present self. If that includes losing two pounds and lifting weights, I abide, but as a Type A, anxiety-ridden ex-grad student, resolutions are a tricky thing for me. I take them heart-attack seriously. But a resolution of continual self-improvement seems to keep things yoga-positive.

As 2014 progressed, I adjusted the bullies and huddled new goals under my umbrella intention. Last fall, after packing and unpacking seven waist-high boxes of literature, I resolved not to buy new books until I finished all of the unread ones I own. (Of course there are ways around this. Loaners and gifts from friends and Waylon.) I resolved to support indie bookstores, so I bought albums, bookmarks, and postcards as I dog-eared my way across my collection. I resolved to participate in NaNoWriMo, to bring the hibiscus bush in the front yard back to life.

What you love says a lot about you. Last year, I fell in love with Diane Cook, Joan Didion, and Celeste Ng. (Before October, I was a Didion virgin; I like to make myself feel better by insisting every writer has a writeror threethat they’re embarrassed to admit they haven’t read.) I also fell in love with podcasts: Make/Work, A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment, and Between the Covers. In 2014, I searched for inspiration in womenwild women, unique womenwho are unabashedly themselves, beautiful, smart, courageous, ferocious women. I yearned to witness other creative lives and how those artists made/make art happen and, semi-importantly, how they subsist. Because I’m a literary-nobody, I wanted to know all these things from the experienced. How can I create while paying my cell phone bill and credit card minimums? After the corporate world, I was thirsty, thirsty for everything I had missed, craved, needed.

Aloha-Hello 2015

Of course, I want to keep my life, relationships, and spaces positive and nurture them through being true, present, and generous. Without this, I cannot be a good writer. With that bedrock in place, I have organized my resolutions into three categories: writer work, money work, and extracurricular literary things.

Writer Work

  • Finish things – Because of my former job and over-commitment problem with perfectionist tendencies, I am sitting on a lot of abandoned projects circa grad school. I have sent out stories in haste, and most of them have returned to me swaddled in a form letter. I resolve to quit comparing myself to peers, who seem to publish at Nascar and shooting-star speeds, and work at my own pace. My stories aren’t going anywhere because they live in meonly I can tell my stories. I must finish them with honesty, patience, and tenacity. 
  • Always write – Even in the depths of revision and editing, I resolve to write new words. While working full-time, my novel was my first priority, and, in over a year, I completed virtually no new writing. My writer chops froze up, and it became so easy to say nothing.
  • Use my freshest, caffeinated, and inspired brain cells for creative work – Too often I jump straight on Twitter, Gmail, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram because as Caitlin Horrocks insists (and I agree), “Everything else feels easier than the blank page.” I resolve to disable the internet more.

Money Work

  • Allow large spaces for creativity (to be mold on the couch, reading) and living (to drink in moments by abandoning everything) – I resolve to only work part-time, which means making the most amount of skrilla in the littlest amount of time to free-up more creative writing minutes, hours, and days. Last year, I volunteered once a week. Even though the experience was valuable and rewarding, I realized how much one lost day steals from my creativity. Almost every week all week, I would resent that one day I had to spend away from home. I dreaded it how some people dread church. Part-time employment sounds luxurious, but, being a writer, I have AP homework for the rest of my life and I am pinching-nickels, returning-bottles, no-401k poor, but a happy and healthy heart makes it worthwhile.

Extracurricular Literary Things

  • Wander – Since September, I’ve been visiting the library, but in my current self-absorbed writerly state, I venture to the library like a spoiled American. I have books driven in via the Request a Book Online tool. My TBR list tells me exactly what’s next. I resolve to spend more time in my library, browsing the aisles until I happen upon something that interests me (an out-turned cover, a mysterious spine) and open it only to fall for the epigraph, the first line then sentence then paragraph then page until I take it home with me to devour.
  • Start a writing group – I resolve to get eyeballs on my work: colleagues, friends, beta readers, agents―in whatever order they’ll have me.

With that said, after five-ish months of full-time creative writing, I return to work next week. I didn’t come countries within finishing my novel or finding an agent. (It took Junot Diaz 16 years to write This Is How You Lose Her, so I rather just do like Junot and get it right). But I accomplished more than I could ever imagine, and the hibiscus bush is making a comeback.

Essentially, this year has taught me that I cannot live without writing. Kim Addonizio states in Ordinary Genius that being a writer is a commitment to writing, whether that consists of 30 minutes three times a week, or one hour five times a week. Even if I’m working on deadlines and ordering take-out every night, this ass must meet my chair because writing really does choose you, and, as Zora Neale Hurston says, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Please check back to see how the office/creative-life balance is happening!

Jane and Her Average Writing Day

“The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” Agatha Christie

I measure my workdays by Waylon’s. On the average weekday, he clocks 9.5 hours at the office + 1.5 hours at the gym + 1 hour in traffic, so we work 50% of the day. Twelve hours a day sounds severe, like I’m a machine shop pumping out fragments and repairing sentences, but we writers know how much of the craft is sitting down, staring at the wall.

6:00 a.m. Waylon’s alarm buzzes us awake, if the unfinished projects and/or the cat-sized pigeons purring on the eavestrough haven’t already woken me. I rub my eyes and paw my nightstand for my glasses. More than likely, I knock my book to the carpet. More than likely, the bookmark falls out.

6:05 a.m. For breakfast, I scramble organic eggs and sausage (Thanks, Costco) and sprinkle in whatever Safeway marked on sale last week that threatens to turn first. Waylon insists that, like me, he is fated to die young. He is Polish; I’m a Virgo (in the company of the early-departed Buddy Holly, Freddie Mercury, River Phoenix, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, and Paul Walker–RIP, kindred spirits), so I cook as farm/ocean-to-table clean as possible to tack as many years as I can back onto our lives.

6:47 a.m. Before I do anything else, I inspect my checking account to ensure I am not in the negatory limbo, the 24-hour grace period in which I can transfer funds from my measly savings without penalty. I update my weekly budget, tallying expenses (Sunday’s ritual Panda Express take-out, student loan payments, groceries, the birthday/Christmas/wedding presents I space out, so that I can participate in being a good human being). 

7:14 a.m. Social Media Round One – I look for opportunities because I plan to be at AWP 2016 with a pretty business card: JANE WRITER freelance writer and editor, lawn care, kidsitter, dog walker. (Whatever will be, will be, because we all know what the real dream is and that takes longer than a year.) Plus, that whole money thing . . . I search for résumé and CV bullets, free submission periods, part-time work that I can tolerate. I check Twitter, Pinterest, the sites I maintain for organizations. Because I am only saying aloha-hello to the world, I favorite interesting posts for later, rank my email correspondence according to importance on a Stickie note, copy and paste links into my job search spreadsheet. If anything productive happens, I grin with momentum.

7:43 a.m. I head to the porch to greet the morning with my current library book.

8:41 a.m. Sometimes the words strike me early, sometimes later. If I’m inspired, I bring my laptop outside and write until the sun blasts me inside. If I have to wring the words out, I recline in Waylon’s magical blue chair, scratch my head, twist my fingers in my dirty hair. When the magic fades or my old, overworked laptop begins to burn my thighs, I knock the mail on the kitchen counter to the floor and stand, my DIY stand-up desk.

10:16 a.m. Social Media Round Two – I read those favorited items, respond to an email or three. If the book is of the can’t-put-down kind or the cause of my writing burst, I pick it up again.

10:45 a.m. After my creativity putt-putts, I house a jar of dill pickles for energy and read more, hoping new words happen shortly.

11:42 a.m. Whether I like it or not, I write. Usually some words are okay, some horrible. If all of the words are horrible, I revise or edit, email colleagues, try to forge new connections, apply for work prospects, circle the house hopelesslyshuffling my feet, hanging my head.

12:48 p.m. When my brain is mush, I lament the blinking time on the clock, mourn that the writing day is half over, and I soak pans, load the dishwasher, prep veggies for lunch and dinner while listening to podcasts, other creatives, hoping I gain intelligence through osmosis.

1:15 p.m. Often I read about writers, their odysseys and lessons learned, to understand how they “made it” or to dispel the mystery of query letters.

2:17 p.m. Social Media Round Three – Let’s be real. I sharked the internet the entire time. Let’s not track how much I stalk my inboxes and notifications.

2:44 p.m. By now, I feel so dirty that I clean.

4:01 p.m. I run. Sometimes I feel like I am running from something. Sometimes I feel like I am running to something.

4:42 p.m. For the formerly depressed administrative-assistant me with poems pinned to my cube walls for “resting my eyes,” I capitalize on idle minutes. During cool down, I smash in more words, adding to that word count, or finish reading what I abandoned when I fled the house, myself.

4:54 p.m. I primp like the December tradewind. Between the hours of six-to-five I live in squalor, so I attempt to erase all evidence of my gross writer habits. I shower. If I have time, I paint my chipped toenails, pluck stray eyebrow hairs, brush on eyeshadow, pinch my cheeks. If it’s a good writing day, I write more. Last Tuesday, I greeted Waylon, wrapped in a towel, post five-minute shower with a life-sized Batman in my cave. When the bathtub is your Kleenex, I guess that’s a real-life risk you take.

5:23 p.m. I cook a hopefully life-lengthening dinner, Army-sized, so I have leftovers for tomorrow’s lunch. Saved minutes are precious.

6:07 p.m. Waylon and I eat dinner and discuss our days. Then we do that thing that couples in a happily familiar relationship, who have done much courting of each other, do, where we retire to the living room and respectively ignore each other. In these hours, we peruse the internet and halfheartedly listen to DVRed TV shows for the first, second and sometimes third time. Periodically we stop to tell each other something we forgot to mention or to state fleeting thoughts about football or a new movie, but mostly he reads and I read/blog/edit/revise/tweet/write until our eyes and old bodies insist it’s time for bed.

9:48 p.m. We fall asleep: him to the flash and flicker of the TV, me to a book. Our feet tangled, the position in which I feel the utmost love and gratitude. Once in a finger-clipping moon, I feel manic. Mostly I feel that I have harnessed whatever it is in me that only full-time writing seems to satisfy, but striving to be the best version of ourselves is constant work. Some things I hope to change: the only leaving the house to run, the erratic pitter-patter of my writer heart, the restless fingers.

Jane and the Disastrous, Horrendous, Not Ok, Effing Bad Day

“Love what you do and do what you love.” –Ray Bradbury

When my boss unexpectedly fired me, I stood in blue lace tangas and a boybeater, trying to dam the tears until I had the details. He said with unbelievable ease, “It has nothing to do with your performance.” Then something like, It wasn’t my choice: upper management. I had nine days until jobless abyss. My soon-to-be ex-supervisor and I were, of course, on the phone. On my side, I scrambled eggs and fried Canadian bacon for me and Waylon, ensuring the sizzling fat didn’t splatter me in my more-skin-than-clothes work-from-home attire that I had grown to love over the previous weeks. Waylon appeared at the top of the stairs, his forehead twisted in worry, big blue-eyed empathy.

When you are fired, even if it has nothing to do with you or your performance, you are still fired, and the ego-bruising is just as traumatizingly hideous. A whole company can live without your contribution, your wide smile at the coffee station, your funky/classic office garb and keen sentences!? They may not be better off, but they rather lose you than have you, which is the equivalent of the it’s-not-you-it’s-me-break-up–except this “boyfriend” is your livelihood, not those edamame-brained skid marks you liked remarkably less than your wonky pinky toe.

As discussed in Junot Diaz’s 2013 New York Public Library conversation with Toni Morrison, around 1981, Toni Morrison was fired/quit Random House. When she went home, glad she didn’t have to work the next day, unaffected by joblessness, Beloved percolating in her brain and fingertips, she sat at the end of a pier, jittery, wondering what was going on inside her, when she realized, “Oh, this is what is known as happiness, so this is how it feels.” I wish I was as graceful, calm, cool and talented as Toni Morrison, but I am not. I am zip codes away. I squirreled away every extra nickel for my eventual unemployment, pored over my budget, paid forward on bills to delay desperation, despite everyone and their drunk hookups’ new girlfriends swearing I’d qualify for unemployment; it seemed too good to be true, and I had to face that, presently, everything that could go wrong was, in fact, going wrong. I worried in ailments, daymared folliculitis into a flesh-eating skin disorder that I couldn’t afford with my uninsured self. My savings account dwindled, and my teenager (a compact car) squeaked every time I released the brake pedal. Understatement of the late summer: I was a mess.

But even shedding those tears I knew that this major dropkick-to-the-face of a setback was the World’s way of saying, “Hey chickenshit, your life is a little too safe right now. You’re paying too much on your student loan and credit card debt, and if I didn’t spike everyone’s drinks and plant a crack in the sidewalk you would have continued bawling in your cube, hating the 8-6 life and three years later you would still be stuck on the fourth revision of your novel with all the Dr. Maya Angelou quotes pinned to your sad cubicle walls with the Pablo Neruda and the Terrance Hayes and the Joy Harjo collections hidden in with the house style guide and manuals, feeling like a fraud writer who peaked in grad school, so YOU’RE WELCOME.”

A long month-ish later, the unemployment payments kicked in. I felt the new day arrive tangled with the trade winds. Granted time to patch my life together, I scurried application materials to slush piles where I, a no name with not enough publications, have remained, since March, unnoticed. In the meantime, I wrote, revised and further professionalized myself. I wish I could have done that gracefully, too, but with a ticking clock, that textbook drama, I acted grad-school-crazy, all scattered energy, my hands in everything, listening to podcasts while I overcleaned, tiptoeing to my computer in the middle of the night to fix a story or type 600-something words after a nine-hour writing day. Other than the 24 hours I was laid out with a sinus infection, I never took a “me” day, didn’t even watch one Sex and the City rerun. Was I doing too much? Is that a thing?

Recently, while visiting family and friends I–GASP–didn’t write a syllable. For. Two. Weeks. I packed three books, read two and a half of them and decided to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Starting now, my goal is not to seize every entry fee-free fellowship, writing contest and submission period. My goal is to focus my energy, finish things, apply for jobs that I might 97% like (instead of jobs I’d 89% hate that pay less than my previous job with an added three-hour commute), submit only finished pieces to lit mags that I’m butt-in-love with. It’s back to writing for me and following those dreams because, hopefully, while writing for me my time will come.

Jane Makes Her Move

“Sometimes your only available transportation is a leap of faith.” –Margaret Shepard

Waylon and I had been dating for over a year when relocating with his company became imminent. Despite the destination, we decided that I would go with him. Due to recurring daymares of me dying of staph in the street, I discouraged certain international cities before the application period began.

I didn’t love my job. Before I received my MFA I had asked myself the question that most creative people have to face: How do I do what I was put here to do and feed my face? As a contractor, I made $20 an hour wordsmithing. I had healthcare, the realistic dream of a fresh graduate, but I wanted THE dream: to be a self-sufficient writer.

One magical Monday, a word Waylon recognized as Hawaiian–super vowel-y, sprinkled with Ks and Ls–appeared on his phone, a job posting. He applied (OMG, HAWAI‘I), but he also applied for four additional openings, which included ten months of winter, smog, somewhere I had never heard of, and somewhere I can’t remember.

After wondering for months if I could ever love hockey, if I could rock a dust mask as a street accessory, if I could exist in a place I couldn’t visualize, word came: we were moving to O’ahu, the Chicago of the Pacific.

Following the initial glee, the move was not pretty (more on that later). Sometimes I think I have cried more saltwater than there is sea. But I don’t, for a second, think it’s not worth it. I get to live a mango’s roll away from the beach with my love while the sun shines down on us 99.98% of the time. (Yes, the sun is present here more than the IUD is effective.) But paradise has a price tag, and the world has a funny way of working, not to mention a bully’s sense of humor. Plus, we would be complete assholes if we got to move to the daydream destination of cubicle inhabitants everywhere without a glitch.

Fast forward to house hunting. On our lunch break, Waylon drove us to meet our realtor. At Exit 5, he asked, “What’s your back-up plan?”

My boss was letting me telecommute on a see-how-it-goes basis, the job equivalent of dating due to circumstance, like the time I convinced myself I adored my high school boyfriend because he had a car, and I didn’t want to ride the bus. My employer had a lot of deliverables, and, at the time, I was the only one able to do it. And I was pretty good at it. With two weeks behind us, I felt as confident as that teenager who had to board the big, yellow school transportation one measly time, but Waylon’s question scooped me like an undertow. I bumbled patchy variations of the following:

  • I didn’t think I needed one.
  • Technical writing is my back-up plan, my lucky alternative to adjuncting.
  • I have 500+ pages of drafts from grad school collecting dust, but I don’t have time to polish them into gleaming stories, essays and poems that will win me free one-year subscriptions to lit mags and eternal fame and glory.
  • I have revised my novel steadily, but it’s not query-ready.
  • Health insurance!
  • My CV is lower than crap.
  • Everyone hates me because I don’t have a book.
  • I 78% don’t care what paying off my student loan and credit card debt looks like.

Did I really need a back-up plan for my back-up plan? Because I didn’t have one. My sad rambling had come full circle. “No, I never really thought about it,” I said.

“No worries. I was just wondering,” he said. (In real-life dialogue, non-writers are sooo much cooler than writers. Amirite?)

Less than a week later, I would be counting down (and racking up) the hours to my unemployment. It was July.