Disarming my words

I will no longer give trigger warnings to my students.

I will not shoot them emails; I will not fire off messages.

As a writer, I no longer have targets and I will no longer take aim at them. When I send out new stories for publication, I will not shotgun or scattergun my submissions — I will not bombard journals, will not send a barrage of stories to magazines. When I prepare a submission but fear rejection, I will not bite the bullet before sending out my work.

When I argue with people, I refuse to take potshots or cheap shots; I will not bring the big guns.

I might try to respond to arguments or situations as they arise, doing my best to think on my feet, so to speak — but I will never shoot from the hip. Conversely, no matter how prepared I am, I will never be locked and loaded.

I will solve no problems with silver bullets. Not even this one.

As a fiction writer, I will continue to write about guns and the violence they assist in. I write about our world, and as much as I loathe this, guns and gun violence are a major part of our world. This is not a call for censoring violence; this is no charge that violence begets violence, no claim that “the media made them do it.”

But for me, personally, in my daily language, I will seek whenever possible to set aside the metaphors of violence and firearms. Our language is rich, capable of so much — I have so many other ways to speak, to write. And besides, the realities of violence and firearms are far too prevalent as it is.

We are Umpqua Community College

This morning, a young man went to the campus of Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, walked into a writing classroom, and opened fire. As I write this, the most common reports are that twenty people are wounded, and thirteen people are dead, including the writing teacher.

I teach at Chemeketa Community College; today, I was at the Salem campus, about two hours north of Roseburg. I was teaching my writing class when the shooting occurred; I didn’t hear the news until I was in my car and on the way home.

Online, a number of dear friends immediately contacted me to express both their heartache at this violent tragedy and their relief that it wasn’t my campus. I am so grateful for these friends, for their deep and sincere concern. I love them so much for checking in like that.

But here’s the thing: it was my campus. It was yours, too.

I don’t teach at Umpqua Community College, but I do teach at a community college in Oregon, alongside several of my brilliant Oregon writer friends. My wife is a faculty librarian at another community college (I texted her the news; she’d already heard via her campus email); a few more friends, more of Oregon’s brilliant writers, also teach at her college. Other friends of mine and other writers I know teach at yet other community colleges, other four-year colleges, other universities.

We’re a family, in a way. All in this vocation for more or less the same reasons, with more or less the same fierce conviction in the talents and successes of our students.

This shooting could have happened to any of us. And today, it feels like it did.

Folks, I am gutted. I am dizzy, lost. I feel eviscerated by some emotion — some combination of genuine shock and conditioned resignation, of heartshaking grief and impotent rage — that I cannot find a word for.

I not even sure why I’m here writing this. It’s not to share the news — I refuse even to link to the story. You can find it if you want.

It’s not to offer solutions — the only solutions I know of, we’ve all known of for years, decades now, and as a society, America refuses to enact anything like those solutions. It’s not to arrive at insights — I am struck blank by this news, my mind razed.

It’s not to say or do the things I have said and done so many times before. So many shootings before.

So many shootings.

So many.

So many of us affected by it. So many of us emotionally wounded. All of us wounded. All of us Umpqua Community College. All of us Roseburg, Oregon.

All of us.

On teaching writing, and teaching, and writing

I know a few teaching writers — a lot, if I’m honest — who have often bemoaned their composition courses. They understand the necessity of composition courses and don’t mind teaching them from time to time, but (these writers sometimes confess to me) they would much rather be teaching advanced literature or creative writing.

I don’t blame them. I, too, love teaching literature and creative writing. But I also love teaching composition, from developmental courses onward, and I think these classes I teach have as much to do with my work as a writer as do my literature and creative writing courses.

I have been hard at work these past couple of weeks composing syllabi for my composition classes at my community college. One was easy enough to pull together because it’s simply an update of a course I taught last year. But a second of these took several days to work out because I am revamping the course from scratch and using a new textbook. And the third course took only a weekend but required a lot of intensive work because it was a last-minute addition to my schedule — and it, too, is using a completely new textbook and some fairly dramatic updates of old assignments. So, on the balance, I’ve been doing a lot of work on these classes, and by now I should feel mentally exhausted.

In fact, the opposite is true. I feel energized, eager to get into the classroom and meet my students and put these courses into motion.

The thing about teaching these writing classes that I love so much is that it requires me to think more intensely and more mindfully about the craft of writing. True, I am a fiction writer by trade, and even considering those rare instances when I teach the narrative essay, the work in these classes has little outward relationship with my own writing. But preparing these classes makes me consider, in a highly organized way, what it is I do when I sit down to put words on a screen.

It's amazing how many websites use this quote to try to sell stuff. I finally had to make my own meme.

It’s amazing how many websites use this quote to try to sell stuff. I finally had to make my own meme.

There’s a quote attributed to Faulkner that turns up on my social media from time to time: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” I appreciate the quote and often need it as a personal reminder, but (sorry, Faulkner) sometimes it does me tremendous good to step back from the writing and think about what it is to be a writer. To get my ducks in a row and understand what it is I’m doing when I am at the writing. It’s the kind of thing I’m working on when I plan or outline a novel, arrange the plot points and devise the characters and considered the structure. Not just what I’m trying to say but why I’m saying it and, therefore, who I am to be saying it.

And that’s almost precisely what I’m doing when I work on syllabi: I am arranging the plot points of my course, considering the characters of my students, and thinking about how the structure of the class will help shape the story we all collectively tell each other in that classroom. Who we are as writers, as learners.

And that process excites me. This return to my beginner’s mind (to borrow from Natalie Goldberg), this codified insistence that words matter, that sentences matter, that structure matters, that audience matters that identity matters — this serves me at least as well as it might serve my students.

And in this way, my students teach me as much as I teach them.

In my Buddhist practice, my teachers have a habit of greeting every Sunday teaching and every weekend seminar and every retreat with an expression of gratitude for their students. “Thank you for being here,” they tell us. “Your presence makes my attention to this subject possible.” Always something along those lines. And they mean it. My teachers are so sincere in their gratitude for us students just being there.

It’s a habitual expression I have taken up myself, and I try to greet my students this way, if not every day then at least on the first day of each term, because I mean it: I am so profoundly grateful that their presence in that classroom has provided me this opportunity to reconsider all over again what it is I do in my writing, who I am as a writer. These students are the reason I keep coming back to the classroom, not because I have any particular wisdom to impart but because I am so eager to share with them this practice we’re all engaged in — this academic and creative story we’re all telling each other together.

And so these syllabi I write, they conform (as much as they have to) to the prescriptions of the state and the school and the academic field we all are engaged with, but they also — primarily — are guidelines for us writers. My students and me. We’re all at the same desks, all staring as the same blank pages, all wondering where to begin. And in that respect, these syllabi are as much a guideline for my work as theirs.

And I find that exhilarating.

When to break a chapter

Blank_page_intentionally_end_of_bookYesterday morning, over on my Facebook page, I got an interesting question from my first, longest-time fan (hi, Mom!). I’d been commenting on Facebook the past few days about the progress I’ve been making on my new novel and, in the space of two posts and a comment, I had declared that I’d finished a chapter after adding 800 words to it — then that I’d kept thinking about the chapter and added another 400 words — and finally that I’d stayed up late the other night and written yet another 500 words. After that last bit, I posted, “NOW it’s finished. (I think.)”

Which is when my mother chimed in: “How do you decide when a chapter is done and you need to write a new chapter?”

And man, is that ever a good question.

First, a little history (and I’m just spitballing here — don’t take this as gospel): chapters are not inherent to the novel. The form, which has only been around the last few hundred years, never needed chapters to make sense, and sure enough, some of the earliest examples, like Pilgrim’s Progress, didn’t bother with chapters (Pilgrim’s Progress is divided into two books, but each book is an unbroken whole). Other early novels broke into chapter-like chunks not because of any rule but because of their narrative structure: consider Robinson Crusoe, which plays with epistolary and diary forms and so looks like it contains chapters according to the natural breaks of days or weeks. As the form evolved, it began to organize itself into more episodic plots, as in Gulliver’s Travels and Tom Jones, and that episodism (a word?) played into serialization in the 19th century, as with Dickens and Dumas and Stowe.

The contemporary novel owes a lot to those early forms, but I also think it owes as much to the short story, with chapters becoming almost little self-contained arcs in their own right. And perhaps it also owes something to serialized film, with the use of the “cliffhanger” (a word we get from cinema) as the endings of chapters, something to make us want to keep pressing on into the next chapter to find out what happens (and that’s how you get a “page-turner”).

Over time, we have developed a kind of convention around chapters in novels, and I think most conventional writers tend to think of chapters in a book in much the same way they think about paragraphs in an essay or scenes in a story. These are all various ways of “chunking” text into consumable segments, as much about reader-friendliness and visual aesthetics as about narrative craft.

But these techniques and conventions are not and never have been any kind of rules. You can start a new chapter any time you start a new narrative perspective, or any time you shift scenes. You can end a chapter at the climax of a narrative or emotional arc, or you can follow the arc through and end a chapter at a kind of mini-resolution. You can break chapters for thematic shifts, or stylistic shifts. You can treat chapters like bits of flash fiction, individual scenes, and fill a book with hundreds of tiny one-page or one-paragraph chapters. You can borrow from Faulkner and have a single-sentence chapter. (“My mother is a fish.” Brownie points to any reader who can name that novel without cheating!) You can run chapters into each other and make no breaks at all — just keep the story rushing at us page after relentless page.

Novels and their chapters, if they have any, can do whatever they want.

So that second-person address in my mother’s question is important here: she’s not asking how one knows when to break for a new chapter — she’s asking how I know.

For me, some of this decision-making process is down to plotting, and it’s why, even though I dislike the prescriptiveness of outlines in general, I often need to outline novels. But when I do an outline, I’m usually thinking in terms of story structure, not novel structure: the former is about narrative arcs and character developments, but the latter is just about how the pages will stack and break in print. And I try not to worry about those sorts of concerns until the end.

Some of this, though, is down to the feel of a story’s structure. That’s as much a readerly act as a writerly one. You can probably recall a book where the chapters seemed to short to you, or one where they seemed to drag on too long. You might have been right — those short chapters might have benefited from getting combined with other chapters; those long chapters could probably have been broken into smaller chunks.

As a writer, you can, with practice, develop a similar instinct. You are, after all, your own first reader. When I draft, I usually just keep after a chapter until it feels like it’s finished, the same way I might write a short story until the story gets told. I’ve written before, regarding short fiction, about how I know when a story is finished. And I think in a lot of respects, I use those same guidelines when thinking about chapter breaks — and I confess, I do often think of chapters in terms of miniarcs, little short stories adding up to a whole.

But that’s just a general idea, and the truth is, every book is its own creature and needs its own structure.

Here’s something fans of Hagridden might not know: for the first several drafts, I basically ignored chapters. I included breaks, but I formatted them like extended scene breaks, just a little extra space on the page, because I wanted that novel to run together in one continuous narrative, everything all one story. (That’s also one reason I skipped the quotation marks.) And the chapters I had were fairly long, too — the first chapter in my drafting stages, for example, got broken into chapters I and II in the published version.

My publisher is the one who suggested breaking the chapters into shorter, “more readable” segments and numbering the chapters to keep things organized on the page. And I think the folks at Columbus Press were right about that.

Which is one way of answering my mother’s question: Sometimes, I don’t know when a chapter is finished and when it’s time to break for a new one. Sometimes, those are decisions that editors, as readers, can better make.

But in the meantime, here I am drafting a new novel and, once again, I’m making writerly decisions about when to break chapters and what those chapters are trying to accomplish before I end them.

And while the new novel is set not long after and not far away from the setting of Hagridden — I’m still wrestling with the Civil War and its aftermath; I’m still writing desperate, violent characters trying to find their way in a desperate, violent world; and I’ve hopped only one state west into Texas — the new book is quite different from Hagridden. It deals with a longer time frame, measured not in a year or so but in decades, and it contains a much larger cast of characters. It’s also dealing with different issues, including connectedness, what constitutes a family, and how to live with the memories of our misdeeds. So this novel requires a very different (and more expansive) structure, and for this draft, I’m working with at least two narrative perspectives and at least a handful of entangled storylines.

Because of these issues, I’m intentionally playing with chapter lengths, including some chapters that are longer not because I just feel like writing long chapters but because that stretch of story needs more room, more pages. But I’m also working with a slightly more episodic structure and with different time periods, each reflecting on the other, and to keep those things straight on the page, I’m also working with some shorter chapters, little transition moments or “punctuations” on plot or emotion.

My current (but certainly not my last) iteration of my chapters outline, in Scrivener.

My current (but certainly not my last) iteration of my chapters outline, in Scrivener.

In fact, I’m so aware of how these chapters are playing against each other that, in an unusual process for me, I’ve actually outlined the chapter structure. In fact, I’ve done this several times — the writing keeps leading me in unexpected directions and I keep scrapping old outlines and starting new ones. The current chapter outline shows me the first handful of chapters, though I’m already seeing ways that will probably have to change.

I’m also trying to bear in mind some advice I got when I workshopped this novel at Sewanee this summer: my faculty mentor, Allen Wier, and several of my workshop readers gave me permission to slow down, to let the story breathe a bit more on the page (because of my short story training, I frequently want to rush novel drafts). And that’s what’s been happening with this particular chapter I kept finishing and then adding to this week.

It went like this:

I knew the beat this chapter needed to strike in the scheme of the whole novel, so on the first pass, I just tossed in a starting paragraph and some plot notes. On the second pass, I fleshed out those notes, like finishing an assignment, and because I’d done what I’d set out to do, I called it a day.

On the third pass, I actually set about filling out the sentences, cleaning up the prose, and wrapping up something that felt like a complete segment, a finished chapter. And that’s when I wrote those initially triumphant 800 words.

But as I went to bed that evening, I kept thinking about the brevity of the chapter, about the character’s motivations and his environment. It helped, by the way, that I’m currently reading Christian Kiefer’s beautiful novel The Animals, and Kiefer does a thing I strive for in my own work: he writes fantastic natural description, swooping in on these glorious little details of the natural world and making them so integral to the characters and the story they inhabit. And I realized I needed to add some of my own character’s world into this chapter I’d written, so I left the bed and sat at the dining table in the middle of the night and added another 400 words. And that was what I needed — the narrative beat and some important setting details that reveal a bit about the character.

But then, when I next sat down to write and was rereading the chapter to get my head in the right place to move forward, I realized I hadn’t revealed anything about this character’s motives. I’d dropped him into a world and then set him on a path, but he didn’t have any obvious reason to be on that path. I knew the reason, but the reader didn’t. So I added another 500 words, some within the existing text and some in a new scene that pushed me past what I’d thought was the end of the chapter. (I love pushing past the obvious ends of things.)

After all that, do I finally know this chapter is finished? No. I think it is. But at least two things could change that: One, I could write something later that makes me rethink this chapter, adding more in order to make it better fit with later material, or deleting things that later story changes or contradicts — even just tossing out the chapter altogether. And two, some reader down the line — an agent, an editor, a publisher — could suggest changes to the chapter.

But for now, whether this chapter is finished or not, I know it’s time to start a new chapter, because if I really wanted to, I could spend the next six months just working on this one short chapter, and I still have a whole novel to finish writing! And ultimately, that’s as good a reason as any to call a chapter finished: it’s time to move on.

More on the poet who should never have been named

Yesterday, I posted about the Best American Poetry 2015 controversy, and in the comments, writer N. E. White (also a pseudonym, but one legitimately used) asked a smart question:

When I submit my work anywhere [under a pseudonym], I include my real name on the submission. I thought that was pretty standard practice. Is that not standard for poetry submissions. How did his identify remain secret for so long? He’d have to have lied at some point.

I wondered the same thing, and in my reply to that comment, I noted that the Hudson poem in question originally appeared in Prairie Schooner, along with a list of other prestigious journals in Hudson’s bio (Georgia Review, Gulf Coast, Iowa Review, etc). I noted at the time that I didn’t know which of those publications had published “Michael Derrick Hudson” and which published “Yi-Fen Chou,” and I wondered aloud how much complicity they had in perpetuating Hudson’s con. “It’s possible, of course, that he never revealed his motives to those magazines,” I concluded, “so maybe they aren’t at fault.”

Today, I might have found the answer, in the form of a BuzzFeed article Facebook-shared and commented on by BAP 2015 poet Saeed Jones.

The BuzzFeed article includes a lengthy (albeit fairly weak) response from BAP series editor David Lehman, and the comment contains this key quote: “We were in production [on BAP 2015] when we learned the author’s true identity. Prairie Schooner, the magazine where the poem appeared, was unaware that ‘Yi-Fen Chou’ is really ‘Michael Derrick Hudson.'”

Saeed Jones, in his Facebook post, either extrapolates or has more inside information (I’m assuming the latter) and says that this Best American selection is the first time Hudson is revealing his yellowface pseudonym. Jones also claims it was all part of an intentional ploy by Hudson to humiliate writers of color:

It says so much about American culture that people of color are set up to be humiliated at the PRECISE moment we achieve an honor. Hudson WAITED to reveal his hoax until he found out he’d been selected for the Best American Poetry by a writer of color. He wanted to humiliate poets of color who dared to believe, however briefly, America wanted US, our WHOLE selves.

Jones also speaks to the list of old-guard prestige publications, suggesting that many or all of them were “Michael Derrick Hudson” poems, without the pseudonym (which would definitely undermine Hudson’s own lame argument for why he used the pseudonym in the first place): “Michael Derrick Hudson has been published in esteemed journals well before BAP,” Jones writes on Facebook. “He wasn’t struggling; he was arrogant and entitled.”

Which returns me to my third suggestion in yesterday’s post — that editors think long and hard before ever publishing Hudson again. I made that suggestion hesitantly yesterday, but if today’s news and Jones’s accusations are true, then I would drop all hesitation. If Hudson not only adopted yellowface to subvert a (nonexistent) anti-white bias in publishing but also did so despite a long-successful run of publications under his own name and timed this hoax with the express intention of pulling a “gotcha” on the poetry world, well, I think we’ve all heard everything we ever need to hear from him again.

For more on this ongoing controversy, I’m including a few more links below:

A suggestion for Sherman Alexie and the Best American series (and publishers in general)

For those unfamiliar with the controversy, here is a short recap, as I understand it:

In the 2015 edition of the Best American Poetry anthology, this year’s editor, Sherman Alexie, unwittingly included a poem by “Yi-Fen Chou,” a person whose name I put in quotes because he doesn’t exist — “Yi-Fen Chou” is, in fact, a pen name for Michael Derrick Hudson. As Hudson explains in his bio at the end of the BAP anthology (and I’m paraphrasing here), he sometimes uses the fake-Chinese pen name when his poems haven’t got very far under his own name — the implication being that a non-white, gender-ambiguous (to Western eyes) name stands a better chance of publication than his own white male-sounding name. As Alexie himself extrapolates in a lengthy apologia on the BAP blog (and again, I’m paraphrasing), Hudson seems to be pulling this manipulative ruse in order to combat some kind of perceived bias against white men in the poetry world (which — and these are my words here — is ridiculous). Or, to put it another way — as Alexie as well as many of his critics have been saying recently — Hudson is engaged in a gross kind of racist poetic colonialism.

I am a white cis male fiction writer who can’t write a poem on a birthday card, let alone for publication. As such, I haven’t much reason to comment on any of this except for my general interest in and advocacy for more inclusive practices in all the arts, especially in literature, and for my particular admiration of poetry as an art form. For fuller, more thought-provoking accounts of the controversy, I point you to the UK Independent article “Yi-Fen Chou: White author under fire after using Asian pen name to be published more often,” to Brian Spears’s Rumpus piece “Yellowface in Poetry,” to Katy Waldman’s Slate op-ed “The White Poet Who Used an Asian Pseudonym to Get Published Is a Cheater, Not a Crusader,” to my friend Olivia Olivia’s blog post “Sherman Alexie must have lost his goddamn mind,” and to Alexie’s own post at the BAP blog.

I can’t honestly say what I would have done in Alexie’s place. I certainly would have been angry at being duped (as Alexie says he was), and I would have been doubly furious at the racially fraught and politically motivated reasons for the duping. I admire Alexie for owning to his gullability and his flawed selection process, though I find his decision to ultimately include the Hudson poem problematic and his reasoning behind that decision dubious. (I do find Alexie’s post fascinating, from a professional perspective, but click all the links in that previous paragraph and I think you’ll see where my sympathies generally lie.)

I do, however, have three suggestions, one for Alexie himself, one for the folks running the BAP series, and one for publishers everywhere:

  1. If Alexie wants to make amends for falling prey to Hudson’s con and then for publishing Hudson’s poem after all, he can begin by publicly vowing to read — and comment on and share and celebrate — poems by Asian-American and/or Asian poets, exclusively, for the rest of year. It’s just a symbolic gesture, perhaps, and in fairness Alexie is an advocate for greater diversty in literature already, or, at least (the Hudson issue notwithstanding) his work on this year’s BAP reflects that. But as Alexie himself states in his blog post, he is “a powerful literary figure” with a wide following, and such an additional gesture could do a great deal of good. At the end of his post, he calls on us all to set aside this single item of controversy and “take the time to be celebratory or jealous or disdainful or challenged by the other 74 poets in Best American Poetry 2015“; I think that’s a fine idea, but I also think it would be equally wise for Alexie to take the time to publicly celebrate poems by the kinds of poets he thought he was selecting.
  2. Similarly, the BAP series committee could commit to selecting an Asian-American poet or a relatively unknown poet (or, ideally, both) to curate the next anthology. That, too, seems like a small, isolated consolation, but I would hope it would open the doors to something greater, something more inclusive and less like what Brian Spears calls the “Poems From 2015 Our Guest Editor Really Liked,” or what I like to think of as the “New Best of the Old Canon.” Back in 2013, for example, Cheryl Strayed, who was editing that year’s Best American Essays anthology, fought the editorial committee for the right to consider small, independent, and/or online magazines when looking for the best essays of the year, and several of the essays in that anthology are from online and indie publications. And while in many ways the subsequent essays antholgies have reverted to tradition, Alexie borrowed the idea for this year’s poetry anthology and, as he says in his blog post, “Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.” So things can change, and I think this is a good time for BAP to reconsider who it invites to curate an anthology and how that editorial process works.
  3. Finally, I have a suggestion I hesitate to make: I think poetry publishers everywhere should think long and hard before they ever publish Michael Derrick Hudson again. I’m not saying we should all band together and bar the gates, that Hudson should be banned outright (though I’m tempted). And I’m certainly not suggesting that pseudonyms are off the table — I love pseudonyms and understand a whole range of legitimate reasons people use them. In fact, contrary to Hudson’s implication of anti white-male bias, I know several writers who use pseudonyms in order to combat the very real bias against women and writers of color. So the deceit behind Hudson’s ruse is disturbingly misguided at best, and in my view, it’s flat-out dangerous, the literary equivalent of yellowface. And he should not be rewarded for that. At the very least, I think publishers should refuse to publish anything under the “Yi-Fen Chou” pseudonym, though of course all Hudson has to do is choose another name. But honestly, I’d much rather that man simply keep submitting under his own name and let the chips fall where they may, because as Spears points out (and Hudson himself seems to accidentally concede in his BAP bio note; “it took quite a bit of effort to get into print,” he writes, “but I’m nothing if not persistent”), the fact that his poems get published at all probably has a lot less to do with his fake name and a lot more to do with those poems’ quality and the same dogged persistence we all must use when submitting and facing rejection. If that long, grueling process is good enough for us, it should be good enough for him, and enough with the subterfuge and shortcuts.

It’s a surreal September for the Jersey Devil

JDP Sept 2015 coverThe heat must have gotten to us. Because as Jersey Devil Press leaves summer behind and ushers in fall, we’ve started getting a little . . . weird.

And this is Jersey Devil Press, so that’s saying something!

But it’s a wistful, surreal kind of weird, with monster bees that seem perfectly peaceful, a woman alone on the moon (or is she?), a deadly Egyptian game show that actually seems to run relatively smoothly, and a betrayed woman in a love affair with a shark. It’s all very . . . sweet, really. But weird.

And to cap it all off, we have a cover featuring ShirrStone Shelter‘s beautiful handcrafted porcelain doll — with tentacles.

For extra hugs.

The “rules” of reading: Neil Gaiman, Hagridden, and age appropriateness

My sister's photo of the books my niece took to school this week.

My sister’s photo of the books my niece took to school this week.

Yesterday, on my Facebook page, I revealed that my eight-year-old niece had taken my books to school because her class is discussing what and why authors write. She thought it would be cool to share with her classmates that her uncle is a published author, even though, as my sister put it, my fiction is “not quite suitable for children.”

Later that same evening, a good friend of mine texted me that her fourteen-year-old son was eager to read my novel; she wanted to know if I thought he could handle it.

This reminded me that when Hagridden came out last year and I went on tour, several friends and fans showed up to book signings with their early-teen children, and those twelve- and thirteen-year-olds insisted on getting their own copies of my novel, because they were eager to read it. Some of the parents seemed nervous about that, while others were openly unconcerned. I passed along the books either way, because I’m as unlikely to tell a reader she can’t read my book as I am to tell parents how to raise their children.

But all this has come to a head this week not just because of the confluence of parents mentioning my novel but also because of an interview Neil Gaiman gave The Guardian newspaper. Titled “Neil Gaiman: ‘my parents didn’t have any kind of rules about what I couldn’t read’,” it speaks in some interesting ways to age appropriateness and who ought to be reading what novels.

The title, in fact, comes from the opening response from Gaiman: “I was really lucky in that my parents definitely didn’t seem to have any kind of rules about what I couldn’t read. And that was wonderful, because it meant that whatever was on the shelves, if it was interesting, I could pick it up and I was allowed to read it.”

Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious (via Wikipedia)

My mother-in-law, Phyllis, tells a story about wanting to read Peyton Place as a high-school girl. At the time, the novel was highly controversial, and Phyllis, ever one to investigate things herself, went to the public library and asked for it. But the librarian refused, tersely explaining that the book was “restricted” and required parental permission.

So, sure enough, young Phyllis brought her mother down to the library, who (to use my wife’s words) “reamed out that librarian” and told her, “My daughter has my permission to read whatever she wants, and I do not want to have to come down here again!”

(“Little did she know,” my wife adds, “that she was inspiring a future librarian! Two generations, in fact!” For those new to the blog, both my wife and her mother are librarians!)

I remember when I was just on the verge of adolescence — I was eleven? or maybe twelve? — and first encountered this question of who could read what: it was in the YA novel The Girl With the Silver Eyes, by Willo Davis Roberts. The book is a sci-fi/paranormal novel about a girl with telekinetic powers, but of course that’s just the set-up for the thematic analogy of the outsider yearning to find people like her. In the novel, the main character, Katie, feels so marginalized by her gift that she perfers to hole up in her apartment and read books all day. There’s a scene where she encounters one of her mother’s books, something very adult (I might be misremembering, but I think the suggestion was that the book involved sex), and her mother was concerned about her reading it, but Katie read it anyway.

I remember realizing I’d never been told not to read something, and I browsed my own parents’ shelves looking for something “adult” and “sexy” that I might be forbidden to read, but I couldn’t really find anything I would have denied. I had open access — my parents didn’t deny me any books based on age.

Gaiman, in his interview, agrees with this approach to giving young people free rein to read what they please. “I seem to have done just fine,” he says in the interview. “Although there were definitely stories that I would bump into that I would find disturbing. I remember being disturbed by a Charles Birkin short story called the Harlem Horror, a weird little horror story that I probably ran into when I was seven or eight and I really wasn’t ready for it. But, mostly, I read whatever was around and learned whatever I could from whatever I could find.”

This is very much the way I read as a child and teenager. I picked up all sorts of books as a tween and teen that, to outside eyes, I might not have seemed “ready” for — my dad’s violent action-adventure novels, a whole array of horror books — but in my memory, the books I found hardest to read weren’t the scariest or the sexiest but the most literate and challenging. I remember not really understanding Heart of Darkness the first time I encountered it, nor even liking For Whom the Bell Tolls. (These are two of my favorites now.)

If anything, those “scary” novels did much to open my eyes to the realistic horrors of the world. My mother, while never refusing me any books, did often worry that I was becoming “desensitized” to horror and violence, and she might have had a point — my father stopped reading Stephen King in the middle of Misery because he couldn’t handle [SPOILER ALERT] the man who gets his head run over by a lawn mower; I love that novel and that scene in particular. And sure, I partly loved it because it was so gory and shocking. But I also recognized the horror of it, because actually, in the reading I was doing, I was learning a lot about how terrifying human beings can be — and how to engage with this trauma, psychologically and emotionally, through the healthy buffer of fiction, to share in human trauma without necessarily being traumatized.

“I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life,” Gaiman says in his interview, “and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable,” and I’d agree, but I confess that subversion was definitely a draw to me back then. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

Some of the things I came to, ready or not, I picked up precisely because they were spoken of in hushed tones and generally, if not directly, deemed inappropriate for me. I remember searching the school library’s catalogue for Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and was both shocked and thrilled that the library had a copy; I was sorely disappointed when I flipped through it and realized it wasn’t actually a book of evil spells. (Since then, I not only understand how important and beautiful that novel is, I’ve also met Rushdie.)

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lo...

Necronomicon: The Best Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft: Commemorative Edition (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a related search, after I saw the Evil Dead movies, I went looking for a real-life Necronomicon, which is how I first discovered the beautiful, terrifying fiction of HP Lovecraft.

I also remember reading American Psycho in high school: it was in the news at the time and there was a rumor that it had been “banned,” so of course, all my friends rushed out to get a copy. We spent many a school lunch grossing each other out with the depravity of serial killer Patrick Bateman, but I was aware, even then, that something deeper and more intelligent was going on in the novel, and it was the social human horrors, and not the blood and sexual violence, that kept me awake at night.

Reading some of these more “controversial” works opened me up to more classical, canonical literature. Stephen King and Clive Barker led me to Poe. I had read The Scarlet Letter in school but didn’t fall in love with Hawthorne until I read “Young Goodman Brown” in an anthology of horror short stories. I devoured my dad’s action novels, and while they did little to address what conflict and war does to the human heart, they did serve as my gateway to Dog Soldiers and Blood Meridian.

I learned from the violence and the horror because the best of it required me to think my way through it. Which is something else Gaiman mentions: “It’s hard to upset people with just prose these days because you actually have to read it and you have to think about it and you have to understand it.”

Finally, the interviewer asks Gaiman the question most pertinent to my past couple of days: what to do with age-appropriate labels?

“I’ve never been terribly impressed by the whole age thing on the back of books,” Gaiman says. “[A]s far as I can tell, mostly what it does is simply dissuade people who might like a book from reading it either because they think they’re too young or, more often, because they think they’re too old. [. . .] I used to like what they did in Sandman — the Vertigo comics — where they put ‘for mature readers’ on it. And they didn’t try to define mature readers by age, they’re just letting you know these are not kid’s comics.”

So, for future reference, friends and fans: Hagridden (and, in fact, most of my fiction) is definitely for “mature readers.” But I’m not here to define that maturity, and if you have a mature teenager (or are a mature teenager), then by all means, I hope you enjoy my novel! I’d love to hear what you thought of it. And if you don’t know if your teen is ready for a book like mine, well, talk to them and find out what they are ready for. And then, whatever your age or your maturity, READ — anything and everything you can understand, and maybe a few things you can’t.

Oh, and my niece’s elementary school class? If you’re a children’s or YA author and you’d be keen to tell her class, in person or even just via email or blog comment, about what you write and why you write, let me know! Leave a comment or send me an email. Those kids would love to hear from writers!

Ellen Urbani celebrates Landfall at Powell’s, and a bunch of Portland writers hug each other

Last night, I attended the Portland celebration of Ellen Urbani‘s new novel, Landfall, at the Powell’s downtown. Ellen has been getting a lot of much-deserved positive attention for this beautiful, important novel (full disclosure: I blurbed it, but only because I loved it so much), so I knew the turnout would be big, and when I learned that Cheryl Strayed was introducing Ellen, I decided to arrive at least a half-hour early to beat the throngs. I wound up being 40 minutes early and, sure enough, the reading room was already teeming with fans and well-wishers.

My dragonfly tattoo.

My dragonfly tattoo.

I said hello to Ellen and to her rockstar publisher, Forest Avenue Press‘s Laura Stanfill, and then I spotted author Mo Daviau in a seat, so I headed that way. Mo pointed out that a group of kids was giving people temporary tattoos of dragonflies (it’s a reference to the novel); she showed me hers so I went to get mine, but on the way I spotted my friend, author John Carr Walker. We chatted for a while, during which time author Stevan Allred walked past and I greeted him, and then I spotted author Rene Denfeld and went to say hello to her (and finally get my hand fake-tattooed).

By the time I finally took my seat, I had recognized several other writers in the room, and I sent this text to my wife:

“SO MANY writers here! Cheryl Strayed and Elissa Wald and Rene Denfeld and Stevan Allred and Liz Prato and John Walker and Dan Berne and Mo Daviau . . . . I know most of these people and am friends with some of them, but I’m starting to feel a little starstruck!”

And when I looked up from that text, I spotted Margaret Malone, Edee Lemonier, and Kate Gray, and by the end of the evening I’d also seen Davis Slater, Monica Drake, and Evelyn Sharenov. I even met one author new to me, Kate Ristau, who is awesome!

I was, indeed, startstruck. But it was true: I know these people. Some are good friends, others close acquaintances, and some I’ve only met a couple of times at events like this, but I know these people. I live among them, and we all do the same thing: we write. We are writers.

I sat in my little metal folding chair grinning like a fool. I felt so blessed just to be in the room with all these people. But to be among them? To be one of them? I can’t explain, exactly, how warm and grateful that makes me.

It’s the thing I have come to love most about this city I call home now. Portland isn’t really the sunny Portlandia you see on tv or the beer-bearded nirvana you dream about moving to — we have our issues, and plenty of them — but folks, the writing community here is the most supportive, close-knit, warm, loving mass of human beings I’ve ever lived and worked among.

This isn’t to say that Portland is unique in this respect. I’ve seen similarly supportive communities in Columbus, in Austin, in San Francisco. I’ve felt it deeply at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and at every AWP conference I’ve attended. But there’s something special about this town, something almost familial about the Portland writing community. It’s like a city-sized group hug around here, and yesterday, at Ellen’s book event, that group hug was a big one.

Cheryl Strayed, introducing Ellen Urbani.

Cheryl Strayed, introducing Ellen Urbani.

Cheryl Strayed introduced Ellen and spoke about their friendship — they met not as writers but as mothers and then discovered they shared a profession (“I don’t think we exchanged manuscripts on that one,” she said, referring to early book projects, “but we exchanged kids! A lot!”) — and then Cheryl described how beautiful Landfall is.

When Ellen took the podium — or, rather, took the mic and walked out in front of the podium, to be closer to the audience — she held off talking about her own work and instead brought up wave after wave of other people she wanted to thank: her publisher, the designer of her book cover, her web designer, her publicist. She gave flowers to them all! And then she kept on, thanking friends, thanking readers — she even thanked a few of the people who’d blurbed and promoted her book.

She read a bit from her novel, but she also spent a lot of time, both in her comments and in her Q&A, talking about the human devastation of Hurricane Katrina, about the things people go through in desperate circumstances and the ways people come together. (Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the hurricane’s landfall.) Then, following her Q&A, she called up a University of Alabama football player and coach to chuck Moonpies and boxes of Crackerjacks into the audience while Ellen sang the University of Alabama fight song! Then Ellen herself tossed strings of beads into the crowd.

All of this is to say that, if you’re an author going on your first book tour, take some tips from Ellen Urbani. It’s all fine and well reading your work aloud for an audience — I do that a lot, and mostly people seem to like it — but whenever you can, try changing things up a bit. Talk to the audience, get other people involved, do something interactive, and have some fun with it. Make it an event. Your audience will love you for it.

Before signing books, Ellen, ever the class act, called up every author in the audience who’d ever had a book for sale in Powell’s, and we all lined up for a group photo so large we couldn’t fit into a single frame — Laura Stanfill stood on a chair and still had to take two photos to get us all in!

And in that photo, we got to do what I had been feeling all afternoon — it was, effectively, our big group hug.

Ellen signing books.

Ellen signing books.

I chatted with some of the writers for a minute but noticed the autograph line was already halfway around the room, so I grabbed a spot in line. As I worked my way closer to the signing table, I had time to read thank you notes in a display case and, just to drive home how close-knit the whole writing community can be, not just within Portland but well beyond this wonderful city, I spotted a thank-you card from author Jesse Goolsby — who was in my workshop group at Sewanee!

A thank-you note from Jesse Goolsby to Powell's, on display in the top-floor reading room at Powell's.

A thank-you note from Jesse Goolsby to Powell’s, on display in the top-floor reading room at Powell’s.

Small world? Nope. Writers’ world. :)

My literary tshirts

Earlier this week, my teenage nephew sent me a tshirt that has become — immediately upon its removal from the padded envelope — one of my favorite tshirts:



I mean seriously, how amazing is that?

(It’s available from JC Penny if you want one of your own.)

But it got me thinking about some of my other literary/grammarish tshirts, and I decided I’d post them all here for folks to enjoy. Some of these are one-offs or limited to participants, but for the ones you can buy yourself, I’ll try to link you to the stores/websites.


Available online from Out of Print (or try your public library's Friends of the Library store).

Available online from Out of Print (or try your public library’s Friends of the Library store).

This shirt comes from Out of Print clothing, from whom we have also bought many of my wife’s Jane Austen- and library-related shirts, sweaters, totes, scarves, wallets . . . . I love this tshirt, and I wore it to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, taking care to wear it on the day we workshopped my novel excerpt as well as the last workshop day.

Out of Print also makes children’s books tshirts, and they have a heartwrenching Corduroy shirt that I’ve been begging them to release in adult sizes for more than a year now. They have started releasing other children’s book shirts for adults, but the last email I got from them said they weren’t planning on an adult Corduroy any time soon. If you enjoy a profound nostalgia for that book like I do, write them and ask them to step up the schedule! We want that shirt!


This summer, the Portland Actors Ensemble performed Macbeth in an actual cemetery. It was a solid production in the perfect setting, and when I found out they were offering thirts, I decided I had to have one. (I’m not finding this one on their online shop, but you can contact them at the link above and see if they have any available.)

Rougarou: Journey to the End of the Night

Rougarou: Journey to the End of the Night

This is the tshirt from my Columbus Hagridden release event, called Rougarou: Journey to the End of the Night. The tshirt was produced by Columbus business Outfit Good, which supports artists, charities, and socially conscious local businesses through its tshirt designs and sales. (Sorry, gang — if you wanted one of these shirts, you had to be there. It’s a collector’s item!)

Magazines & presses, and conferences

Back in my younger, cooler years, I collected concert tshirts. These days, I’ve started collecting shirts from magazines I’ve been in and conferences I’ve attended or taught at.

Magazine & presses

The Lit Pub shirt and the Artistically Declined Press shirt are a few year old, and I got mine direct from the publishers, so you might not be able to find these exact shirts. But contact them at their websites and see what they have available. The Portland Review shirts are gifts to contributors (I was in their Winter 2014 issue), but I’m sure they have some extras they’d love to unload if you contact them.


This was this year’s tshirt for the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and while I was obviously going to get one of these anyway, I was thrilled with the Tony Earley quote on the back! It’s perfect. They had a whole range of shirts from previous years, too, and some of my friends started a collection, but I was happy with just the one.

If you want a Sewanee Writers’ Conference shirt, you should apply to attend the conference! You can only get them there.


This is from the Compose creative writing conference held each year at Clackamas Community College. I taught a flash fiction workshop there this May (the website still shows last year’s info), and it was great fun. The workshops this year were only $5 per class, so you can’t beat that price — if you’re in the Portland area and you want one of these shirts, sign up next spring and buy one of these shirts at the conference!

Literary references

I won the WWNDD? (What Would Nancy Drew Do?) tshirt! It was part of a grand prize I won from Her Interactive, maker of the amazing Nancy Drew video game series, of which I am a HUGE fan. When I won the contest, I got a phone call from the company, and the guy on the phone didn’t believe I was the one who’d entered. “You mean you did it with your daughter?” he asked. “No!” I said. “I play the games myself — my wife and I are huge fans!” “So you won the prize for your wife then.” “No, dude!” I said. “I freaking love Nancy Drew!”

The shirt was available from Polyvore, but they seem to be out of stock at the moment. Keep checking, though!

The other shirt is the back of the a tshirt for my undergrad college‘s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the international English honors society. We thought the “Poe-tree” pun was pretty funny, and one of our chapter’s faculty members (James Harris, if I remember right) drew the design for us.

Phrases and puns

My mother-in-law gave me the “Careful or I’ll put you in my novel” sweatshirt for Christmas several years ago. At the time, we had a landlady who had that same year confessed she was nervous knowing I was a writer. “I don’t talk to writers,” she told me through a crack in the door when I dropped off our rent check. “I’m always afraid they’re going to put me in their novels.” So of course, when I paid the January rent check, I wore this sweater to her front door. (She laughed.)

My mother-in-law also gave me the “Good Morning is an oxymoron” shirt, which all night-owl writers will recognize the truth of!

Both the sweater and the tshirt are widely available online — just google them.

My cousin Bob had the Ennui shirt custom-made (the drawing is his and everything). The story he tells is that he was traveling somewhere and had to sit down because he was having trouble breathing, and his heavy breathing sounded a bit like sighing. A man on the bench next to him asked Bob if he was okay, and my cousin wittily replied, “Oh, it’s just my ennui.” Then, seizing an opportunity to expand the joke, he added, “You should try it on for sighs.” But the man only looked at Bob funny, and Bob realized that the homophone would work better in print than out loud, so he made this shirt. He gave me one during my book tour stop in Fort Smith, Arkansas, last year. It’s a custom job, so I don’t think you can buy it anywhere, but if you’re desperate for one, email me and I’ll get in touch with my cousin. :)

Professional shirts

These are shirts my family gave me when I finished my PhD back in 2007. My sister’s kids all call me “Uncle Smiley,” so for my hooding ceremony, the kids all helped my sister iron on these custom “Dr. Smiley” patches (I have one on a tie, too). And my brother bought me one of the classic “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor” shirts (available just about anywhere), which people always ask me about. “Are you really a doctor?” YES! :)

And speaking of my family — that nephew who found that “Metaphors Be With You” shirt? Today is his birthday.

Happy birthday, Aidan!