Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sara Bareilles Stories

I love Sara Bareilles.

An overstatement, perhaps, for a woman I don’t really know and don’t ever really expect to. She has emerged as my favorite contemporary solo artist of the past five years. I love her music. I love the persona that she puts out in the world.

But I came to her slowly.

The first time I heard Sara Bareilles play, she was opening for Counting Crows at an end-of-summer show in an outdoor amphitheater in Northern Virginia. I had heard “Love Song” on the radio and had a passing familiarity with some of the other songs because my girlfriend at the time, who was always a little ahead of the curve on budding pop stars had played her music in our apartment a bit in the five month interlude between its release and the point when I moved away.

I liked Sara at that show. I remember thinking that “Many The Miles” was a good journey song, and finding the rest of her set inoffensive if not exactly awe inspiring as I waited for my favorite band to take the stage.

Ironically, it was Counting Crows that brought me back to Sara two years later, after that relationship had come to an end, and as I broached an emotional nadir in the aftermath of the relationship to follow that. I remember house and cat sitting for two friends while they were on vacation. I remember driving along the sludgy streets of Hampden and listening to a bootleg version of the Crows playing “A Long December.” And I remember when Adam Duritz slipped out of the “na-na-na-na”s that end his song, into a series of “love, love, loves” as he began to sample Sara’s “Bottle It Up.”

I didn’t know that the song was “Bottle It Up” that time, but I remember staying in the car and driving around the block an extra time to just re-experience that transition into that song, knowing I’d heard the song, abstractly aware that it might be a Sara Bareilles song, though I could have easily been swayed if someone trustworthy had insisted it were Vanessa Carlton or Ingrid Michaelson. When I did go inside, I Googled furiously to determine what the second song was. Try Googling “love love love” or “I do it for love”—it takes a while to zero in on this particular song based on those clues.

So I found more of Sara’s music. I learned that she had sung with her college a cappella group and grew more fascinated, in particular with “Gravity,” which she wrote in college and had won awards singing the solo on with her group at UCLA. Not long after, she joined the judging panel on The Sing-Off and became the near-perfect quirky, infinitely likable complement to my pre-existing favorite solo artist, Ben Folds.

On one of her final episodes on the show, Sara joined one of the groups to perform her new single “Gonna Get Over You.” I was hooked. Just to shore up my fanhood once and for all, Sara Tweeted to all of her followers a funky little video I had recorded for The A Cappella Blog about why NBC should renew The Sing-Off.

I started downloading every Sara Bareilles song I could find. First every studio recording. Then miscellaneous YouTube bootleg stuff.

By the time, The Blessed Unrest came out, I needed no convincing to make the purchase on iTunes. I devoured the album. Fell in deep and profound love with “Manhattan,” yes, but also espoused “Chasing The Sun” as a de facto anthem for my summer, and particularly an end of summer trip down the California coastline, during which I both jumped out of a plane and made an impromptu drive down to San Diego to go on a first date with my eventual wife, Heather.

Then I fell for “I Choose You.” In one of our many Skype conversations in the months to follow, Heather and I talked a lot about the many ways in which things probably shouldn’t be working for us--her in southern California, me working in Baltimore. We talked about how everything from our first choice to go on dinner dates over a video feed, to taking cross country flights to visit with one another for a week at a time were all about choices. And I sent her a link to a live, acoustic version of Sara performing this song.

Heather loved it, too. We established our song, and said that if we ever got married, that would be the one we would have our first dance to.

We made good on that.

But while we were engaged and before we got married, I had the opportunity to meet Sara. She published a book of personal essays and went on a tour of major bookstores for signings. While Heather was away visiting friends, I made the drive from Corvallis to Portland to see her at Powell’s.

I arrive at around 2:30 for the 4 p.m. signing, only to see signs posted that the line would start forming at 12. I suspected I might be screwed, but, to my good fortune, there weren’t more than a hundred people ahead of me. So, like so many others, I took a seat on the floor for the wait. Unlike many others, I took out the the students' assignments I'd brought with me and set to grading.

At 3:30, I heard cheering. Sara had gotten set up early, and just out of sight from where I waited around a corner and behind two rows of bookcases.

But the line moved quickly--largely a credit to the hyper-organized Powell’s staff that had everyone fill out Post-It notes with their names and leave them hanging out to mark the title page of the book to make it all the easier for Sara to sign quickly. There were no posed photographs allowed, but there were personnel in place to take phones and take candid shots of each fan talking with Sara for a few seconds while she signed.

It came to my turn in line. We shook hands. I told her my name was Mike.

She smiled. “I’m Sara.”

Ordinarily, when I write about celebrities, my history in journalism and critical writing compels me to address them by last name. But in that moment--that objectively absurd moment when Sara so humanly felt compelled to introduce herself, even though I not only knew her name, but had waited for nearly two hours to have the chance to say hi to her--she gave me her first name, as if we were to be friends. Thus, I’ve felt compelled to use it.

I’ve met a handful of celebrities in situations like this--formal events in which you’ve got at most a minute to talk, to take them in, to make any sort of impression. I’ve learned not to put too much stock in such encounters. The wait in line is inevitably longer than the interaction itself, and there’s very little possibility of leaving an impression on someone who’s shaking hands with a few hundred strangers that day.

Years earlier, I had read in a review of The Blessed Unrest that “I Choose You” was destined to become a wedding song for the masses. Case in point, unbeknownst to me, my own best friend and his wife played it for their wedding a year before my own. It wasn’t a nuanced or terribly original choice. Still, I had the inkling it could mean something to Sara that day, in that bookstore.

“I’m sure you hear this a lot,” I said as she focused on the page, copying “Heather and Mike” from my Post-It. “But my fiancĂ©e are going to have our first dance to ‘I Choose You’ at our wedding. And I just thought you should know how much your music means to both of us.”

She looked up at me again. “When are you getting married.”

I told her it was a year out. She stuck her tongue out a little and smiled as she turned back to the page, signing her name, a peace sign, and a heart. “Well, I’m going write a note to congratulate to the two of you.”

It wasn’t much. A literal “Congrats!!” in the space between names. Still, it felt like a little something extra--like maybe in the sea of faces and names from that afternoon and the rest of her tour, Sara probably wouldn’t be able to pick me from a line up, but she might remember and feel heartened by the mention of one more pair of fans who not only celebrated her music, but made it a part of one of the most important days of their lives. Who got the impact of choice in love.

I devoured Sara’s book, Sounds Like Me in the week to follow. It‘s a surprisingly sad meditation on issues of self-esteem, body issues, and finding oneself as an artist. It’s arguably all the more effective for all of that melancholy and insecurity getting couched within what is, at heart, a success story. Sara's not only a survivor, but a thriver. An artist who found her voice and ended up reaching millions.

We can’t all be Saras in the literal sense of Grammy nominations, top ten hits on the Billboard charts, and crossover success as songwriters and essayists and part-time Broadway stars. But we can make art and find beauty out of experiences that might have felt like failures at the time. We can make choices. We can do it for love. We can be brave.

I could go on. But just as the forgettable opening act for a band I liked more became one of my favorites in her own right, and the type of star I would drive out of town and wait for the opportunity to meet, whose music I would obsess over, whose book I would push to the front of reading queue to indulge in--well, who knows what any of us might one day become?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Keep On Dancing

I like dancing.

But I didn’t always.

Like the majority of adolescent boys, I didn’t come to dancing with any recognizable skill out of the chute. I was self-conscious about my skinny body and my less than perfect rhythm. Moreover, there’s the sheer action associated with dancing. Speaking up in class is a courageous act: putting your ideas and your voice up for the public scrutiny of a classroom of peers--friends, enemies, and crushes alike--besides the judgment of the teacher as to whether your ideas have any merit. But dancing is so much more. Putting your body, flailing limbs and all, on display in an effort to move with feigned confidence and demonstrate your athleticism, your cool, perhaps even your sex appeal.

That’s a lot to consider putting out into the world in the seventh grade.

So, the first dances I went to in middle school, I did not dance. I did, through an elaborate network of friends asking for me, ask several girls to dance (no dice) but rarely ventured onto the dancefloor myself, or when I did it was more often than not to comedic effect--imitating the head-banging motions of Beavis and Butthead or doing the sprinkler. Safe moves, because I was in on the joke, and I wasn’t supposed to look good so much as I conjured images of other people being funny.

Then I went away to camp.

When I discuss the social benefits of my summers with the Center for Talented Youth, it’s become a go-to anecdote to recall the first time I slow danced girl, and more particularly to recall that awkward transition in “Stairway To Heaven” from soft meditation to electric rock and roll song. (For fans of Freaks and Geeks, you might recognize my plight in Sam’s first dance with Cindy Saunders, to “Come Sail Away.”)

Dancing with a girl felt momentous at the time, and it’s a good hook for a quick anecdote. But in retrospect, those Friday and Saturday nights at CTY were about more than a coming of age moment when it came to sexuality or romance. What stands out even more is the recollection of bobbing up and down and from side to side in a circle of friends, in which not one of us could really, objectively dance that well, and not one of us really, objectively cared. I remember that last dance of my first summer there and a sense of pride at having danced to every single song that night.

And the enthusiasm did transfer to my year-round life, where I started to dance more. I was rarely the one to start a circle at a middle school or high school dance, but there was more than one time when I was the second or third party in, or the first boy to do so--a fact that never ceased to surprise my friends who knew me to be quieter and more serious than all of that.

The dam truly broke for me when, in my junior year, one of the dances hosted a lip synch contest. I developed a full-on routine and choreography to Stroke 9’s “Little Black Backpack,” practiced on a daily basis, and signed up to compete. The night of the show, I recall friends expressing their doubts, certain I was about to embarrass myself and, in the same breath saying they would perform with me but they didn’t know the song at all--code for, if I wasn’t going to bail, they sure as hell weren’t going down with the sinking ship.

In my mind, the lip synch performance was great. Epic. All the swagger of a rock n roll star, amplified by the fact that no one knew I had that performance in me.

To my knowledge, no video of this performance exists, so I can’t watch it with a more objective eye. That said, when I think back on it, I really can’t imagine that it was objectively great. I can remember that moment when a hundred other kids started clapping along, though. That there were screams and hollers of support in all of the key moments I had planned as high spots in the performance. That a rush of people--some of whom I had considered friends, and some of whom I had not--came at me as I posed at the song’s finish, with hugs and high fives—about the closest I ever got to a high school movie moment of triumph. I had won the big game, danced with the prom queen, punched out the bully. All of that sentiment wrapped up into four minutes of dancing and the immediate aftermath.

That moment had a lot less to do with dancing well than what I like to think was a manifestation of everyone’s inner geek and everyone’s inner exhibitionist. That moment of letting go of the fear of looking foolish in favor of doing something bold, incredibly un-cool (when you consider the cumulative hours of preparatory work for a performance at a high school dance) and, perhaps most importantly, fun.

This is the lesson, so obvious, and yet so hard to believe in at the moment of action. The overwhelming number of settings in which dance would naturally play a part, no one cares how anyone else looks dancing--if anything, they’re worried about themselves. After the moment has passed, when a person gets in the groove, dancing is irresistibly fun. But prior to that moment, in making a conscious decision about whether or not to get on the dance floor at that bar or that wedding or that party, it can feel like the world.

I’ve never seen the movie, We Bought A Zoo, but there’s a particular line from the trailer that I’ve loved since the first time I heard it, in the dark of a theater, waiting watch another film:

“all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”

Strip away Matt Damon talking to his movie-son. The logic applies to any range of situations from the decision to buy a zoo to asking someone out to dinner. To the choice to dance.

Dancing isn’t for everybody or every situation. But I dare say that it’s for a lot more people and a lot more situations than people care to admit on a day-to-day basis. It can mean the difference between blending in and standing out. Between a moment you look back on with regret and a moment of triumph. Between being too cool, or too old, or too professional, and having the time of your life.

It starts with that moment of courage. It can lead to a whole lot more.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Sock Puppets

The last semester of my MA program in writing was dedicated to the thesis—seventy-to-eighty pages of work, revised through an intensive partnership with an advisor, plus a weekly class when folks finishing their time with the program from each of the different genres (fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and science writing) came together to discuss their theses, elements of craft, and what we would do once we were done with the program.

The capstone to all of that was a reading. Each of the graduates had about eight minutes to read a selection of their work for an audience of fellow students, faculty, alums, and whatever family or friends attended.

I had completed the MA part-time via night school, while working a full-time job. It took four and a half years and during that time I attended just about every these reading. I knew what I was getting into.

Still, I was nervous.

I’ve had my share of public speaking engagements and I’ve read my work at plenty of open mics. All considered, I was probably as well prepared for this reading as I could be. Still there’s a sense of gravity to events like this--that as much as they are meant to be a celebration of work, they also mean putting your work up to public scrutiny, and yourself as the conduit for your work reaching an audience made up mostly of people who haven’t read your work before and who never will again.

I was reading about clowns.

One of the stories in my thesis was “Clown Faces,” a story later published in an anthology called Things You Can Create, which I had revised heavily over the course of my thesis term, and I’d be reading from a particularly dark new segment of it--a portion when an evil clown who dropped out of clown college contemplates unleashing a lion on the other members of a circus.

In an effort to counteract the gloom of the piece and add an especially surreal layer, I decided to read while wearing a big red clown nose.

As I prepared for the reading, looking at myself in the mirror as I familiarized myself with lines and memorized key sentences, I realized another advantage of the clown nose. It was funny.

In a public speaking/reading trick that I have learned and forgotten over and over throughout the years, if I can get a crowd laughing, and particularly if I’m laughing with them early on, it can be a tremendous means to diffuse tension. The clown nose looked to be my answer this time around.

And then another answer came up.

One of the poets reading that same night (to protect the innocent, we'll call her Julie) was particularly nerved up about the prospect of sharing her work with an audience, particularly a poem posed as a dialogue between two characters, when she didn’t know how on earth the audience would follow what was going on.

I happened to walk into one of our final classes before the reading, just as she was venting this trepidation, and more importantly just as another classmate suggested that she do the reading with sock puppets.

“That sounds awesome,” I said as I took my seat, only fifty percent aware of what they were talking about. “And I’d be down to play one of the sock puppets.”

“Really?” Julia asked.

I had made the remark off the cuff, and assumed that the whole thing was a joke. It occurred to me in that moment that it may actually be serious, and that if I, who was vocally encouraging her, back pedaled out it could be seen as a real jerk move. So, I said, “Of course.”

I wasn’t sure how serious either one of us were.

But the night of the reading arrived. As always, bottles of cheap wine abounded in the lobby. I poured my first glass. When Julia found me she was already on her third glass and rapidly approaching the line at which one becomes too drunk for a reading to be a good idea.

She handed me my puppet--a bright red wool sock with googly eyes glued to it. “Don’t worry, they’re new socks,” she said. A second later, she handed me the poem, delineated on the page like a script.

Julia read early on, and she did well, in a series of poems that culminated in her inviting me to the podium. I bounded out of the audience, sock puppet and script ready, and we proceeded to ham it up to an absurd degree, in a moment I’m not sure that the faculty loved, but the crowd sure seemed to get a kick out of.

After that performance, wearing a clown nose for my own reading felt less like meat and potatoes, more like the gravy on a night of literary absurdity. And I thought to myself, that Julia and I--and the whole lot of us--hadn’t just survived that reading and the end of our grad school years. We had taken ownership over them.

It’s easy to look at a public engagement as something that has to be formal and nerve-racking, and there’s a time and place for solemnity. That said, I walked away from that reading with a renewed sense of all of the fun that life can be when we do let our hair down and worry less about perfection, more about having a good time. There’s plenty time in life to take yourself seriously. We’d might as well take advantage of the opportunities for play while we're at it.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Telling The Story

I supervised Bernice before I befriended her.

I worked full-time for my summer program, hiring and managing people, overseeing all manner of details. Bernice was a registered nurse who only worked the summers for us, and had settled into a comfortable annual gig of coming in on weekday afternoons to administer medications and tend to bumps and bruises. That first summer we worked together at UC Santa Cruz, I have to assume that she saw me as little more than another in a line of young people, plugged into a position of authority, who would hopefully stay out of her way. She was nearly fifty years my senior.

The second year, we established a rapport. I fell into a routine of asking her what she was making for dinner that night, and she would regale me with tales of lasagnas and meat loafs and roasted vegetables, any one of which sounded far better than the dining hall fare that awaited me on campus.

Summer programs tend to see their share of turnover. By our third summer, I was one of the few familiar faces to Bernice. The one she asked to hold the arm of as she descended a steep hill, and the one she defaulted to asking to carry boxes for her as she set up her office. I probably should have delegated such responsibilities, for example, to the assistants hired specifically to work with her. But there was something I appreciated about being the one she called on. About having earned her trust. Little doubt, about the ways in which helping her reminded me of how I was just getting old enough to meaningful help my grandmother when she started lose herself to dementia, and in those years before I moved away and then she passed on.

Thus, it was with some reservations when I let Bernice know it would be my last summer.

She told me that she thought she would be done, too.

In the final days of that summer, we got to talking about what I would be doing that summer, and it only then occurred to me how little I had revealed about myself beyond work, and beyond satisfying an old woman’s curiosity about my relationship status and upbringing. I told her that I meant to move across the country and write.

And she told me she had a story.

The next day, Bernice presented me with “The Story.” A five-page manuscript, written long hand in big, swooping, ballpoint script on paper from a legal pad. I sat down and read it in front of her, a reversal of roles from my own childhood years when I remember pleading that my grandmother read my stories in front of me so I could see her reactions.

It wasn’t great. Grammatically poor and largely incoherent, making winks and nods and asides without enough context to follow more than half of them. It was only in the late stages that I connected enough dots to realize she was telling the story of Jesus’s birth.

She folded her hands over stomach and reclined in her chair, looking very pleased with herself after I had finished. “I asked two obstetricians in the area to get all my facts straight about what it would have been like then,” she said.

I set aside my workshop-hardened instinct toward constructive criticism. “It’s wonderful.”

My last night on campus we went to dinner, joking that it was it was a dinner date. She picked me up her Oldsmobile with the cassette deck, handicapped parking tag on the dash and we ate good Italian food.

After dinner, she drove back toward campus, then looked at me with a sly grin. “Do you want to see my house?”

In truth, I was curious. But I also knew that it was getting late, and I was, in all likelihood already keeping her up. Besides that, I still had to pack before my flight the next day, and I had tentatively committed to meeting up with some other staff members to watch a movie.

More than all of that, though, I recognized that we had had a nice time together, and the night was more likely to go downhill than to get any better from there.

“I should probably be getting back,” I said.

She pulled into the traffic circle at Crown College--a space so often full of activity when we had had children under our care, now silent and still.

Bernice pulled to a stop, put the car in park, and put a hand on my wrist. “Thank you for letting me be a part of your story.”

As we hugged, I thought it was an odd phrasing. Sure, I thought of so many moments in life in terms of stories, but I supposed that was something older folks, and people who hadn’t devoted their lives to literature, might outgrow to recognize this tangled web of experiences and acquaintances and dinners and goodbyes not as something so contrived or well-defined as a story, but as a life. But then, I suppose she had had far more a life to base her assessment on.

I walked away from the car and Bernice drove away. As she did, I knew there was every chance I’d never see her again. That whatever story we shared had come to a close.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Assumed Intention

I remember reading an argument against multivitamins. The cornerstone of said argument was that there was no credible evidence that a multivitamin regimen increased anyone’s lifespan.

My response, as an inconsistent multivitamin taker, was to question why longevity of life was the metric in consideration for that particular conversation.

Call it logic. Call it neuroses. I tend to take multivitamins when I’m traveling a) because I typically have less control of my food intake and am less confident I’ll ingest proper quantities of fruits and vegetables, b) because I’m often running on less sleep than usual and c) because I’m paranoid about being in contact with more potential sources of illness—people sneezing next to me on a plane, or handling a gas pump multiple times a day without always having the chance to wash my hands soon after.

As you might very reasonably extrapolate, I’m a bit of a germ-a-phobe, and that is the primary driver behind my vitamin intake. While I guess there’s some logic to the theory that preventing sickness prolongs life, I don’t take multivitamins to prevent cancer or car accidents or old age and the myriad risk factors for an inevitable demise. I take them to stave, generally, healthy.

Maybe there’s more research and literature to further condemn multivitamins, even on the grounds for which I use them--I haven’t pursued research in the field. But for me, this simple, flawed argument pointed to a larger issue of assumed intention.

Another example: I have a friend who is a devout gym rat and who is adamant about not getting a tattoo. His reasoning is that people get tattoos in order to make their bodies look cooler, and that getting a tattoo is an easy way of doing so, because you exchange money for your new look. He suggests that the look he develops in the gym is far cooler because it’s earned rather than bought.

I’ve tried to argue the point. I’ve talked about how people use tattoos to brand themselves with important words or images. Reminders to themselves. Representations to the world. I’ve explained The Semi-Colon Project. I’ve shared CM Punk’s philosophy that he feels badly for anyone without tattoos, because it demonstrates that they don’t have as strongly held beliefs as him. He’ll grant me individual cases, but holds his ground on the over-arching argument.

As children, we learn that impact matters more than intention. That if two children are talking and one makes a joke that hurts the other’s feelings, it’s a problem, and despite not meaning to cause any harm, harm has been done. We teach responsibility. The same goes for play fighting that leads to injury, or when playing keep-away with someone’s basketball is read not as play, but as bullying behavior.

The matter of intention vs. impact grows more complicated as adults. We can assume that we know what something means--that multivitamin users want to prolong their lives; that people with tattoos just want to look cooler. Most of these assumptions are harmless, if potentially misguided and annoying. But then let’s look at another case study—WWE developmental talent Zahra Schreiber, who had, in her past, posted images of swastikas to her social media accounts. The assumed intention, and the purported reason Schreiber was released from her contract, is that she came across as prejudiced and hateful. By Schreiber’s own account, she meant to reclaim the symbol and represent not the Nazi-related connotations the symbol has carried in Western society since the 1930s, but rather the good fortune and well being the symbol originally represented. These claims generally fell on deaf ears.

Schreiber’s argument for the Swastika may not be so sympathetic to a general audience. Compare it to the use of the Confederate flag by those who profess it to represent southern pride and history. What are the real intentions there? What is the real impact? What does southern pride really mean?

These are complicated questions which I’m hardly scraping the surface of. I’m inclined to assume the best of people—an impulse reinforced by years of working with children, followed by years of teaching college students. People with strong principles--principles that were, just the same, only then taking shape. I looked at it as my role not to proselytize but challenge, complicate, and add nuance. To generally cultivate critical thinking about what they were really putting out into the world.

I suppose there ought to be no less weight attached to how we understand others. With an eye toward empathy. An instinct toward asking questions over casting condemnations. And, yes, deciding what points are worth not compromising on.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Sun Rises

Fall term of my second year at my MFA program, I was assigned to teach two sections of Introduction to Fiction. It was a great opportunity to break out of the mold of teaching first-year comp, select my own texts, and refine my thinking about both the crafting of literature and the pedagogy surrounding it.

The two sections I was assigned to teach were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

I had my teacherly concerns related students who might sleep through alarms and not come to class, or, little better, make it to the classroom, but show up tired, sluggish, and disengaged.

I had my personal concerns, all the more marked. I’ve never been a morning person, and throughout my own undergrad and first round of grad school, had never had a class earlier than 9:20 a.m. Even my office jobs generally hadn’t called on me to arrive earlier than 8:30 a.m., and there was an unspoken understanding that 8:30 to 9 in the morning was more or less a grace period. I’d get up between 7 and 7:30, eat breakfast, shower, and drive into work within the acceptable parameters of office culture.

But this teaching gig would have me in front of a classroom and lecturing at 8. When I checked the Corvallis bus schedule, I discovered that the earliest stop at the bus outside my apartment complex rolled in after 7:30, arriving at campus between 7:40 and 7:45 if the bus were on time. The Corvallis bus system wasn’t bad—I’d learned to trust it within a ten-to-fifteen minute span, but if the bus did arrive fifteen minutes late at that morning hour, then I wouldn’t get from my campus stop to the classroom on time; and if it were running late, I wouldn’t have time enough to make the two-and-a-half-mile walk to campus by 8:00.

I did the math and strategized. I arrived at the conclusion that I would need to walk to campus. And that in order to have breakfast and shower and not be in a rush every step of the way, I really needed to be out of bed by 6 a.m.

6 a.m. The wake up hearkened back to high school, when I needed to be at the bus stop by 7:15, and thus got up around 6:30. Only 6 was even earlier. I had had individual days of work, school, and travel, when I needed to be up at all sorts of hours, but never for more than a couple days at a stretch. I had had on-call situations that saw phone calls coming my way at all hours of the night and morning. But they were always temporary, always under two months.

I’m not writing all of this to make you feel sympathy for me--there are plenty of people who have had to get up this early--or earlier--for longer periods of their lives. People with children to tend to. People for who found the wee hours the only time they could scrape together to work out or write or pursue other passions. People who had harder work to do than teaching college students a subject that they loved.

I’m offering this background, instead, to drive home how I felt at the news of this early morning teaching assignment and the thought process I went through as it became a reality.

In those early weeks (truth be told, most of the term) I was always running late. Never late to arrive in the classroom, but often scrambling through the last stages of getting ready at home, or not so much walking as jogging for portions of the journey to school. But then there came a morning when I got up with my alarm, didn’t dawdle over my breakfast reading, and got out the door on time and in line with the schedule I had set for myself and so rarely quite lived up to.

I walked down Witham Hill. To the east, the sky was streaked in pink and orange. The clouds had taken on blue undertones as the sky just started lighten.

I’ve always liked sunsets. I like the colors. I like the metaphorical idea of something beautiful at the end of the day, just as night begins to set in. I like their accessibility—that I’ve gotten to see sunsets on drives and walks home at the end of the day, or after dinner, before I’m supposed to meet up with friends or before a show I want to watch comes on TV. Even so, I noticed as I grew older that I was watching fewer sunsets. Too tied up with my job and with work I had imposed on myself. Half the time, I didn’t even notice the sun had gone down until I looked out a window, or were otherwise roused from whatever distractions life threw my way. When I started dating Heather and after our first date included watching the sunset over a San Diego beach, I made a conscious vow to myself to pay more attention. Not to let myself miss this point in the day.

I got better about it. But still not great.

But there I was, a forty-minute-ish walk I had no way around. A class to teach. Sometimes I listened to podcasts along the way. Some times music.

That day, it was music.

REM, to be precise, “Me In Honey” to put an even finer point on it. I listened to that swell of chords and that wordless moan of guest vocalist Kate Pierson. And I watched the sunrise.

I still ran late on others, and sometimes I went so fast that I was only implicitly aware of the sky growing lighter without consciously recognizing the sunrise.

But those mornings when I did see it were better. Sweeter. Those mornings, more than any of the others, I recognized that a new day really had begun.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

To Magazine Editors

For those not invested in the business of literary journals, please forgive the momentary departure from the more typical personal essay format of this blog. I assure you, I’ll be back to more regular programming in my next post.

Think of this as an open letter/conversation starter/short rant. I’d like to preface it all with a note that I don’t intend this post as passive-aggressive, but rather as edifying for editors (as well as submitters). Rest assured, this post is not meant to target anyone in particular. The complaints, implicit or explicit, are based not in any singular, but rather multiple experiences. I’ve opted not to name any specific, real-life names, good or bad, as a professional courtesy, and because I know there’s always the possibility I happened to catch an editor on a bad day and run into an aberration rather than a habitual practice.

Another note--I can sympathize with the role of the editor. While I've never been the shot-caller at a literary journal, I was the managing editor of one for a year, and have served as a contributing editor for another over a year now.

I’ve submitted to literary journals a lot over the last couple years and I’ve had the honor to have work accepted by a range of venues--a few fairly well-known, well-established journals; some fledgling online-only ones. I tend to tier off my work and submit to publications that seem appropriate for how I evaluate each individual piece. I know that strategy isn’t for everyone, but it’s worked for me and the volume and types of work I’ve been writing.

When it comes to whom to submit to and whom to publish with, most of the onus is on the writer to do her/his homework about what she/he is getting into. For example, I have had some work published online in a format that I did not find very aesthetically pleasing. The responsibility for that result is at least equally, and probably more so on me than any editor, because I looked at previous publications and accepted the journal’s aesthetic (or rolled the dice and trusted my work to an inaugural issue).

I do, however, feel compelled to pose this humble list of six (in no way exhaustive) best practices for editors of literary journals:

1) Promote the work. We live in an era in which social media has made a lot of promotion literally free of charge. I get that time constraints and social media savvy vary, but a minimum of posting to Facebook or Twitter and sending a message to let an email list know that a new issue has gone live seems fair.

Options for going above and beyond--the kinds of things that make a writer really appreciate and feel appreciated by an editor--include: making individual social media posts related to the individual piece by an author; re-tweeting an author’s other work that has no direct connection to the journal to support the author on the whole; offering to post an interview with the author on your website; inviting the author to do a reading. Not all of these options are reasonable or realistic to expect of every journal, but trust me when I say that authors do remember when they happen, and the journals that go that extra miles are the first ones that I’ll throw subscription dollars to, refer my friends to, or help to promote the later issues of that I’m not directly associated with.

2) Let the author see proofs before a piece goes live. It’s my finding that old school, primarily print magazines tend to be better about this, probably because there’s no easy way to retroactively fix a printed magazine. Just the same, giving authors a look--with a tight deadline--can spare headaches and embarrassment later. As the author, it was my responsibility to proofread my work before I sent it in (and I’ll be the first to admit I’ve been guilty of not doing so carefully enough on occasion), but if there are errors related to formatting, or line-level edits by the editor, or the editor opting to use a different name than the one the author submitted under (if I submit as “Michael Chin” please don’t make the choice to us a “Mike Chin” by-line instead), that’s on the journal. I get that giving writers rubber-stamp privileges can prolong the process, but I think a tight deadline (especially for online publications) along the lines of forty-eight hours to review the draft before it goes live is fair to both sides.

3) Be honest about the timeline for publication and keep writers posted. Here’s the thing--if you have no idea about when you’re going to publish my work, that’s actually fine with me. The trouble comes in when an editor:

a) offers a specific publication date,
b) doesn’t live up to it, and
c) lets significant time pass without any communication.

I don’t think I’m alone among writers who compulsively check a website if we have reason to believe our work is about to go live. Delays will happen, and if an issue comes out a few days--even a week or two--late, that’s understandable, and a part of life. I remember, however, meeting an editor at AWP, thanking him for accepting my work, and then being told it should be out “any day now.” It took over three months for it to actually happen, with absolutely no communication in the interim. I completely understand that not everyone can be as timely or as on top of email as they (or apparently I) would like, but it’s a great show of respect to the writer for an editor to be as open and honest as possible to the extent that they know timelines.

4) Contact the author first, then publish. Maybe I’m mistaken, but from personal experience and from my sphere, most writers submit most pieces simultaneously, unless they’ve submitted somewhere that explicitly disallows it. If an editor is excited enough about a piece to want to publish it, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for an editor to contact a writer to let them know they’re accepting a piece before publishing it. I have had multiple instances of receiving an acceptance email that included a link to my piece, already live on the journal’s website. As a professional courtesy, I’m very principled about withdrawing simultaneous submissions the same day I get an acceptance, or as soon as possible if I’m traveling. While I doubt most editors are looking this closely into it, I do feel it looks poorly to withdraw a work after its already been published somewhere else. Besides that, it sends a message to me the journal that published without even waiting for the writer to agree to any terms doesn’t really have its act together in terms of having terms, and, in a sense, views the work as simultaneously good and disposable, to cavalierly throw it up on a website before notifying the author.

5) Send rejections. This is a strange one, and I’d actually be very interested in hearing counter-arguments from those with more wisdom than me. I struggle to understand why it’s too onerous for some journals to send a form rejection if you’re not accepting work. Mind you, I appreciate those that are at least forthcoming that that’s their practice. Moreover, I completely understand not sending personalized feedback to the overwhelming majority of submissions--that’s time consuming and, frankly, sometimes the author’s work might not deserve it. But a form rejection? If The New Yorker and Tin House have time to send them, I struggle to understand why anyone else can’t.

6) Don’t put weird provisos at the end of submission guidelines. Maybe this is just me, and this just grinds my gears because I submit a lot. But if you’re going to have an unusual, restrictive guideline such as a demographic restriction in terms of who can submit to a particular issue, or require an unusually large reading fee, that information really ought to be foregrounded. Again, maybe just my personal axe to grind, but there’s a special place in literary hell reserved for journals that tag onto the end of lengthy guidelines that, oh yeah, they don’t accept simultaneous submissions.