Category: Life

Bang not Whimper

I had this wonderful conversation with one of my undergrad professors yesterday and we were talking about work and I told him I feel like the hardest thing right now is prioritizing.  I don’t know when to hunker down and work on something long versus how much of these short interviews/reviews to do versus whether I should really push to publish something academic since it’s about one year from my inevitable job hunt.

What I’m getting at here is that this blog has slipped down in priorities and I think that doesn’t matter, but I do need to transition to some sort of non-blog-based web presence in the not so distant future.  Any suggestions on that front would be fantastic – what are your favorite author sites?

2016 has gotten off to a good start.  I already occasionally use a standing desk, but one of my first investments of the year was an exercise bike with a desk attached.  I’m using it while watching television and getting my morning interneting done – I don’t think I could read on it, but I think it works well for most other things.  I think we need to tell beginning writers/academics more often that so much of getting started is figuring out how to make being hunched over your desk for a long time work out for you.  You don’t just have to do it, you have to do it while remaining healthy (physically, emotionally, socially, financially) and productive.  That looks different for everyone.

I’ve also written a letter, went on a mini road trip, and baked – all things I want to do more of in 2016.  I think I’ve hit the pinnacle of hipsterness by drinking some small-batch tonic and enjoying it.

I don’t know what my goals are for writing.  I think I want to get something academic published before I start job hunting.  I want to review only books by people of color, women, or translated authors.  I have a new job as a blogger for Ploughshares, which I’m pretty pumped about.  I’ll be doing an interview with a translator for them once a month.  I also want to pitch some long-form journalism.  We’ll see what happens.

Outside Content:

Gender gap in translation.

Lots of good Star Wars writing out there.  This has minor spoilers and was one of my favorites.

We’re a little past the season, but here’s Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Carol.

Weighing Social Networks

As the semester draws to a tumultuous close, I’m looking ahead longingly at the month-long break of winter vacation and thinking about how to spend it.  Of course, it’s not really a vacation.  There are still book reviews to write, submissions to be made, a syllabus to write, and a book chapter deadline to meet, among the various personal obligations that accumulate throughout the semester.  But it is a vacation insofar as I get to spend a lot more time working on writing projects as opposed to classes (both as a student and as a teacher).

Thus, as I look ahead longingly, I’m thinking about what things I’m not doing now that I want to do then and what things I’m doing now that I don’t want to do then.  The former includes decisions between academic essays versus nonacademic prose, short-form versus long-form, revisions versus new writing, etc.  Ultimately it will come down to what projects I’m most motivated to work on at that time, but it’s still nice to speculate.

The latter question, though, that’s the one I’ve really been turning over in my head.  Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a lot of struggles with controlling the time I spend playing video games.  I’ve tuned it way down since starting grad school.  What helped was not playing as many “endless” games (MMOs, PVP-oriented games, ARPGs, etc.) and, to be honest, having a lot of my video game friends stop playing and leaving me with fewer people to play with.  Plus, I can justify some of my playing since I write about video games occasionally, so that’s no longer an issue.

That means I’ve turned my sights to my other modes of procrastination, namely social media/networks.  Reddit is already fading from my life on its own: the racism/sexism is just too much, unless you stay confined to tiny subreddits, but even then it’s become embarrassing to talk about the site with anyone else because of how bad most of it is.  Twitter and this blog feel important, as they should, in theory, contribute to my persona as someone who writes and researches.  They also don’t take up much of my time (as is obvious by my infrequent entries here).  Neither does Instagram, which I just use for personal fun.

Facebook, though, Facebook can eat some time.  It’s become way too easy for me to jump from Facebook to articles and videos and god knows what else.  It’s also just way too easy for me to procrastinate by opening a chat window with a friend or family member.  On one hand, this keeps me in touch with people better than I probably would on my own.  On the other hand, it also has this kind of relationship equivalent to slacktivism, where these tiny bursts of communication stop me from sending out meaningful missives or having a real voice conversation with people.

So I’m thinking about deactivating my account for winter break, to turn off that source of procrastination.  We’ll see what happens, where that goes.  I would like to add a caveat though, that there is one function of Facebook that I just love.  Debra Monroe, in her latest memoir My Unsentimental Education, has this great line about how in reality, people disappear from our lives, and that’s tricky to write about in memoirs because characters in books shouldn’t just disappear.  Facebook has stopped some of those complete disappearances from happening, for me.  Maybe it’s just a voyeuristic thrill, but I love the occasional reminders that people who were once important to me but have drifted away due to the movements of time and space are still out there, are still doing okay.  It’s really satisfying and one of the reasons I would probably never consider a permanent separation with Facebook.

I still need to send more letters, though.

Outside Content: 

Jason Segel’s interview on WTF has been my favorite aural experience recently.

Lincoln Michel has a nice compilation of thoughts on getting published in lit mags over at Buzzfeed.  Probably nothing new there for most people, but a nice centralized repository of concepts.

Speaking of procrastination, I got kind of fascinated with Graham’s Magazine recently.  Someone buy me an original copy or three.

Growing Old Together

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a topic that has nothing to do with the usual content of this blog, but I don’t really have another outlet for it and I’d like to articulate some things and so here we are.

That topic is retirement and assisted living brought on by aging.

As someone who works in academia, my field has retirement options that are not possible in many fields.  Partial retirement is possible and frequently occurs.  Many people work way past the typical retirement age.  If a writing professor is successful with their writing, then they undergo a kind of early retirement from making a living primarily off their university position.  There’s a lot of discussion about the problems surrounding academia and retirement (see an article from Slate and an interview on Here and Now), but my main point is that I’m exposed, through my career, to a lot of different forms of retirement.

I also tend to prefer the company of older people in my social circles.  Some of my best friends are my parents’ age (and a lot of them I met through work) and I just tend to enjoy the conversations and interactions more than these situations for people more my age.  This is not the case for all of my friends, of course, but a good number.

Finally, my family’s configuration puts the topic in the forefront of my mind on a regular basis.  My father is a semi-caretaker to my disabled uncle and my grandmother spent the last month of her life living with them.  My maternal grandmother died of Alzheimer’s and spent the last few years of her life in assisted living facilities.  My maternal grandfather has a fairly typical retirement that involves a lot of golf.  My mother-in-law lives in another country, away from almost all of her immediate family, and so her situation is also in the back of my head.

On top of all this, I read about retirement on /r/personalfinance and /r/financialindependence, and find the mindsets I read there very interesting.  Given my wife is from another country, seeing how retirement is handled across cultures is another facet I’ve had in my head.  Then there’s my genealogical research, which exposes me to the circumstances of people’s deaths.  I also teach Atul Gawande’s New Yorker essay “The Way We Age Now” which is part of his book Being Mortal.  It’s a super fascinating read – check it out.

So, two years ago, some friends of ours in their 70s began deciding how they were going to spend the end of their lives.  They had a house they’d lived in for decades in Texas, but it was larger than they needed, old, and their children were more or less permanently relocated to the northeastern US.  They did a lot of research and described the process to us – they were looking for a financially stable place (that didn’t have a risk of shutting down while they were there) with quality workers (we’ve all heard the horror stories that sometimes come out of these facilities) that was geographically convenient.  They ended up at a Kendal location.

My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting them last week.  They’ve lived there for about a year.  They’re both still very active, both mentally and physically, and in fact this is one of the most impressive things to me about their transition – they both emphasized how much they wanted to actively make the decision to move to the community while they could still integrate into it socially and experience the new area.

Some things that set this place apart from other places I’ve seen/read about:

  • The community provides a continuum of care all the way to end of life.  They have independent apartments and a facility with assisted living.  The biggest benefit of this is that if one spouse deteriorates, they still can stay at the same physical location.
  • There is no director of activities that plans things for the residents.  Instead, the residents propose and plan any new groups or events themselves.  The amount of investment by the residents was really impressive.  Our friends showed us the woodworking shops, which was furnished entirely by tools that residents had brought with them and then realized they didn’t need and so donated to the community.  One of their new buildings was funded primarily from residents and willed assets – so the residents are so invested they voluntarily give extra money. Out of ~400 residents, our friends said they knew of at least 5 residents who had made a full-time living as potters.  One of our friends is learning pottery, the other is learning weaving.
  • They do NOT segregate based on needs.  A lot of facilities separate off people who are unable to feed themselves and such are kept separate from the rest of the residents.
  • They have a farm house for visitors to stay on the premises.  We saw at least four families of all ages at the swimming pool while we were there for a three-day visit.

I guess this runs the risk of sounding like an advertisement, but honestly I’m in shock at how little thought most people give to the last 10-20-30 years of their lives and making plans for how to get there.  It also kind of scares me how I might have to help make/enact that decision for people in my life who put it off.

So, yeah.  I don’t know.

Outside Content: I’m pretty pumped about the upcoming release of The End of the Tour even if it looks like it won’t be in Austin until 2+ weeks late.  This article about Jason Segel makes me more excited.

On the Search for Sponsorship

The writing online community has been abuzz with this recent article from Salon wherein the author discusses how a lot of writers are able to write full-time primarily because they have an outside source of financial assistance, whether that be from their spouses or their families.  I love this article because I too have seen allusions to working hard and giving up other parts of your life is enough to make writing “just work.”  I do think being realistic about what it takes to make a living as a writer is something we could use more of, and I think it’s harmful when young writers compare themselves with others without fully seeing their situation.

The Salon article prompted a significant number of responses, both on social media and in other venues.  Two of the more interesting ones are over at Brevity.

The first, “A Word from My Sponsor” by Allison Williams (Brevity‘s social media editor) describes the author’s experiences with putting potential partners’ ability to financially support her at the top of her priorities in choosing.  The article is a little unclear if she knew she was going to need that support or if it was in case of a difficult stretch.  Unusual disclosure, but disclosure all the same, so I’m a fan.  I was also a huge fan of a comment in response, wherein a reader remembers an “entire story collection I was directed to read in my program contained not one main character with a job.”  Other comments discuss the guilt of not contributing equally financially in a relationship.

Brevity‘s managing editor then wrote a response to both pieces in which she generally agreed with the premise of disclosure but worried about the implied advice that writers should seek out partners who can financially support them.  Despite being against seeking out financial support, she does make the case for at least ensuring your partner is going to able and willing to contribute equally.  She cautions against sponsorship with strings and gives a success story of someone who is able to support themselves while writing.  She also points out that she has only heard of women being sponsored by men – all commenters to both Brevity pieces at the moment are women, as well.

I’ll be an exception.

There’s a lot of different factors coming into play here: gender roles/dynamics, society’s ideas/images of writers/artists, guilt over uneven relationships versus not being able to pay the bills (and even more broadly emotional health versus meeting basic/nonbasic needs).  It’s kind of weird that we’ve shifted to this mentality that hard work and the occasional corporate selling-out is enough; so many famous writers of history were sponsored or born into wealth (or maybe it’s not a shift at all, maybe public perception has always been at odds with the reality).  I’ve openly disclosed the fact that my wife makes significantly more money than I do.  We could get by if we both made my income, but our lives would be much, much different.  I’ve written about overcoming the guilt of our uneven financial arrangement: part 1, part 2.  Really, though, this question of finances touches way more than relationships.  From here we can jump to the whole paying/nonpaying publication deal, the current nonpermanent faculty explosion, the expectation that being a good writer means that you’re also good at: teaching, editing, fundraising, and so on.  It’s a tricky world out there to think about money and writing.

My two cents in the matter is that yes, we need more disclosure, because unrealistic expectations hurt everyone and only help a select few seem more sympathetic.  But I also don’t think we should spend much time or energy looking at what the ideal situation/relationship for a writer should be.  That doesn’t seem like a very useful discussion.  Beyond that, I don’t know.  Sometimes I feel guilty over publishing things I’m not paid for, because that perpetuates the practice.  Sometimes I’m thankful my MFA program makes me teach.  Sometimes I feel guilt over the summer writing programs I attended, and sometimes I feel guilt that I don’t feel like I can apply for them this year (this is like double guilt: I don’t feel like I can responsibly spend the money on them and I simultaneously don’t feel like I can responsibly apply for the financial aid to attend).  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if my wife woke up one day and decided she hated her current career path and wanted to switch to something less lucrative and with a long start up time, just like I did six years ago.

Outside content:

James Joyce was sponsored, but not by his wife.  Today would’ve been his 133rd birthday.  Here he is reading from Ulysses or from Finnegans Wake.

Today is also Groundhog’s Day, which means we should celebrate that crossover of Borges-ish fiction with Bill Murray deadpan: Groundhog’s Day.

Finally, check out an essay I wrote that was born out of a frustration with the perpetual division between so-called literary fiction and genre fiction: “How to Write Like George R. R. Martin

Thresholds

I’m knee deep in an essay which asks the question, “Can book reviews learn something from video game reviews?”  Part of writing this essay involves thinking about the book review industry as a whole, and my little portion of that industry.  Should I be writing book reviews for free?  Is it worth the time investment to get the exposure and add a line to my publications?  It definitely seems like it, but what are the ethical implications of doing this work for free?  Are there thresholds which I shouldn’t cross in regards to which books I review (both in terms of who wrote the book and who is publishing it), which venues my reviews appear in, and how often I write reviews?  (For the record, I just realized that out of my six published and three upcoming book reviews, only two books were written by women.  That makes me feel terrible and part of one of many problems.  I’ll be more conscious in the future.)

Oddly enough, the question about thresholds makes me think about another aspect of my life: my relationship with food.  When people ask, I tell them I’m a vegetarian, even though that’s not exactly true, but it’s a simple label to use and there’s no real concise alternative.  I try to be vegan when I’m preparing meals for myself and vegetarian when I go out or eat someone else’s cooking, but I’ll also eat meat if I know it was raised in a way that is ethical and environmentally friendly (which right now is limited to a few farms near Austin and the occasional farm-raised oysters or snails).  I consider eating meat, regardless of the source, to be a better choice than throwing it away.  Of course, what is ethical and environmentally friendly is largely subjective.  It’s also difficult to know.  Jonathan Safran Foer makes the argument in Eating Animals that even if you know the meat you’re eating was ethically raised, that it’s still unethical to eat it because you’re raising demand for a product that is produced in most cases in horrific ways.  I’m not sure I agree entirely with that, just as I’m not sure I agree entirely with Michael Pollan’s conclusion to The Omnivore’s Dilemma that’s basically him arguing to be mindful of what you’re eating, but allowing himself a can of beef broth every now and then.

It’s tough.  On one hand, I know that when I go out to eat and order something with cheese on it, an animal with a terrible life was involved in producing my food.  On the other hand, a plant-based diet is not always the answer.  If I eat some foods during the offseason, it might come from thousands of miles away.  By eating that, I’m participating  in environmental damage that might affect way more lives.  Hard to say, hard to say.  Even buying stuff in season can have harmful ethical connotations – see the documentary La Cosecha – but I have no real alternatives for that.  We buy locally when possible and pragmatic, and I know that the habits I’ve set for myself make a difference, but there’s always a lingering guilt about what else I could be doing.

Recently, someone told me I shouldn’t call myself a vegetarian because I’m reinforcing the belief that some waiters apparently hold that a little meat is no big deal, even for vegetarians.  Living in Austin, I haven’t ever really come across that attitude, and I’m not really sure what I should do differently.  I still get upset if a plate has meat in it when it wasn’t advertised.  I still write comments to restaurants when they offer no good vegetarian choices, and I vote with my dollars in a similar vein.  Coming up with a different label is next to impossible, due to the whole relative nature of it all.  I understand what they were saying though.  Conflict, conflict.  On one hand, I think it’s important to be aware of what decisions you’re making–it’s easy to not think of them as decisions at all.  On the other hand, man it’s complicated sometimes.

Other recent development: I officially hold an MA in Rhetoric and Composition as of a couple of days ago.

Edit!  Hey, I forgot the Outside content:

I’ve begun collecting recent short-form prose at /r/contemporaryshortform.  I don’t plan on advertising it, so it’ll likely remain largely a personal repository, but I’d be happy to have other contributors.

I’m very sad I’m missing Garrison Keillor speaking at BookPeople tonight (he’s promoting The Keillor Reader), but am thankful I live somewhere with such an awesome bookstore.  They have a really awesome blog with book reviews and literary discussion and you should check it out.

Finally, The Onion has the best homage to Marquez.