Ain’t John Carr Walker’s Late Night Debut pretty?

About a month ago, I joined Late Night Library’s podcast series Late Night Debut, where I sat down for a conversation with author Margaret Malone about my sunnyoutside pressmate John Carr Walker​’s beautiful book, Repairable Men, and then I enjoyed a conversation with John himself. That podcast is now live online!

Give it a listen — it really was a fun and fascinating conversation — and then buy John’s book. Seriously. I loved this book (you can see my Goodreads reviews here).


PS: Keep an eye out for Margaret’s debut story collection, too! It’s called People Like You, and it’ll be out from Atelier 26 later this year.

Staying in for National Adjunct Walkout Day

safe_imageToday was National Adjunct Walkout Day. Or, for those adjunct faculty who couldn’t afford to walk out of their classes, it was National Adjunct Awareness Day.

I could have walked out of my class today, but I’ve already missed a couple of days because of my injured hand and since then, I’ve been so focused on catching up on my syllabus that I hadn’t prepared my students for a walkout, which means they wouldn’t have known what was happening. It would have been just a day off for them. So I took the latter option and turned class today into a two-hour conversation about adjunct issues.

I started by having students define the word “adjunct,” which they did admirably just from root clues. But then we looked up the dictionary definition: “a thing added to something else as a supplementary rather than an essential part.” And I began explaining what adjunct faculty do.

We looked at charts about state funding for education: Oregon has great schools, but the state needs to vastly improve its funding for those schools. (The colleges and universities generally are doing everything they can to lessen the impact of low state funding, and my community college, to its credit, is doing a fairly good job of it.)

We talked about faculty ranks: my community college doesn’t do tenure, so we skipped the issue of tenure, but I did explain the various ranks of professorship as well as the different labels applied to part-timers and full-timers alike (lecturer, instructor, adjunct).

We looked up ratios of full-time to part-time faculty: in my community college, it’s two adjuncts for every full-time instructor, but at my smaller branch campus, the ratio is closer to 10-1.

At this point, my students (without my prompting) returned to the definition and wondered how it was possible that the primary teaching force in a school could get labeled “supplementary rather than an essential part.”

So I started walking them through the history of using adjuncts, how we were once the “supplements” to a tenured faculty, there to fill a need as education boomed after the GI Bill and as technological advances required limited-term faculty for specialized classes, but how rapidly — and beginning at community colleges like ours — administrators realized we were an economical alternative to a fully tenured faculty, and starting about 30 years ago, we became the default because we were cheaper.

This led us to a discussion of compensation for adjuncts as compared to their qualifications. In general, I explained, every adjunct usually has at least a masters degree and, as the market floods with more and more graduate students, often adjuncts have PhDs. (I’m one of them.) This means that, generally speaking, adjuncts are exactly as qualified as their full-time colleagues. But because we’re technically “part-time” (despite the fact that many of us teach on multiple campuses to piece together a full-time load), we get paid significantly less than our full-time colleagues.

Depending on where I teach, I get paid a salary rate per course or I get paid an hourly rate, but that hourly rate is only for the number of hours I’m in a classroom or holding office hours. If I have a full load of four or five classes in a term, that’s about 16-20 hours a week. But I do a lot of my work outside the classroom, and if I divide my salary by the actual number of hours I work in a given week, as opposed to the course load I’m given, it turns out that I make somewhere around minimum wage.

Of course, some might argue that I’m working harder than I need to, and that calculating my pay as an hourly wage doesn’t really matter. And in practice, I agree with this. I’ve never been much of a clock-watcher, and I’ve always been willing to put in the extra work if the work was needed to get a job done. Still, for my own sake and especially for the integrity of the profession in general and my colleagues, it’s worth paying attention to how much work our job requires in relation to how much we get paid, and even if I estimate conservatively and let myself get away with fewer hours in a given week, I’m still making somewhere around $10 an hour.

That’s the new minimum wage for Walmart employees.

Think about that.

What might it look like if, to work a cash register at Walmart, you first had to attend eight years of higher education and spend six figures (or rack up six figures of debt) on tuition and books and research, just to ring up someone’s groceries?

I was talking about these issues with my students today and one of them came up with an interesting suggestion. He said we ought to pay part-time teachers the way we charge part-time students. When a student attends school halftime, she pays the same tuition rate as a full-time student: the full-time student pays around $95 per credit hour (typical for community colleges in Oregon), and the part-time student also pays $95 per credit hour. It’s the same rate. Similarly, my student argued, we should pay part-time faculty the same rate as full-time faculty. So, for example, a typical full-time faculty member at a community college in Oregon gets paid $70,000 for teaching nine classes in a year. That’s about $7,777 per class. My student suggested that a part-time faculty member should make the same $7,777 per class, regardless how many or how few classes that adjunct is teaching. My students said that only seems fair.

(The average per-class rate for adjuncts in America as well as in Oregon runs between $2,000 and $3,000 per class — about a third the average rate for full-time faculty. Of course, we adjuncts don’t usually attend committee meetings or inservice workshops, and when we do, we’re paid extra, but even a generous accounting for that extra full-time work puts us at less than half of full-time pay.)

I like my student’s idea. I still think adjunct faculty should have access to at least health care (which under the ACA we are starting to get, but it’s still an uphill battle), and possibly some retirement benefits as well, though I understand that’s a hard argument to make. But at the very least, if we could be paid at a rate commensurate with our qualifications and on a par with our colleagues who have full-time contracts, that at least would be something.

But the most interesting conversation to evolve in my class today revolved around adjunct faculty time, not their salaries. In a PBS Newshour video I shared with the class, there was a line about how the heavy workloads adjuncts have to work, just to make ends meet, reduce their time available outside the classroom. No time or space for office hours, for example; no time to commit to committee work; fewer opportunities for one-on-one interactions with students.

I expounded on this and explained to my students that when I was in college, I was lucky enough to attend an institution that used very few part-time faculty, and almost none of my professors were part-timers. And everyone had an office. Everyone had spare seating in their offices — a stuffed armchair, or a couch, or a bean bag. I told my students how I pestered my professors, how I would follow them from the classroom to their offices. I would sit in their chairs, I would drink their coffee, I would listen to their records, I would sift through the books on their bookshelves, and I would talk to them for thirty minutes, for an hour, for as long as they would tolerate me. When the campus had events on weekends, my professors were there, and I talked to them. Some faculty had housing on or very near campus, and I would sit in their living rooms in the evenings, drinking tea, watching movies, engaging in intellectual salons. I told my students that most of what I learned in college I did not learn in the classroom, I learned outside the classroom, talking to my professors.

And then I pointed out how on our community college campus, the adjunct faculty have one strip of computers, about the third the size of the classroom I teach in, for the 70 or 80 adjuncts to share. We used to have a small conference space where adjuncts could meet with students privately, but space constrictions being what they are, that has since become a full-time faculty member’s office.

When I meet with students, I meet with them in my classroom, or in the hallway, or in the lobby of the building. And it’s rare for any adjunct to have time to meet outside of class anyway. Most of us are leaving the class immediately to rush off to our second or third jobs. Most of us are arriving to work just in time for class to start because we had to drive from our second or third jobs. And all of us have to carry our office with us in the trunk of our car, grading papers in the front seat or at a table in the student cafe.

In other words, while the quality of education that students get in the classroom is exactly the same whether they have a professor or an adjunct, the opportunities for engaging teachers outside the classroom is dramatically different.

I’m lucky enough to have a little extra time, at least this term, and I do try to engage my students outside class as much as I can. Today, one student stayed after class to talk with me about today’s discussion, and he told me that he thinks that kind of face-to-face communication outside the classroom is so important because it helps students better understand teachers and therefore better learn from them in classroom, but it also helps the teachers better understand their students so we can better teach in the classroom. These are his words, his insights. Our students know what good education looks like. Our educational institutions owe them the kind of education they expect and deserve, and part of that means providing better compensation and better working conditions for our adjunct faculty.

At the end of the class, I asked my students what they could do to address all these issues, if they thought this was an issue worth their time. (I know they have lives — jobs, extra jobs, spouses, kids, and so on. Maybe they have more important issues to worry about, though this one does directly affect their education.) Some suggested sharing the news on social media; I pointed out that the movement has a Facebook page and a tumblr, and there’s also a #adjunctwalkout hashtag on Twitter. Other students suggested making sure the media reports on the issue; I pointed to articles in the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and the LA Times just to hit the few I’ve seen so far. Other students suggested writing their state legislators — and this is when I got excited.

So yes, share your support for adjunct faculty on social media, demand news coverage of the issue in your local papers, but most importantly, write your state legislators and demand increased public funding for education, demand fairer treatment of adjunct faculty (and, frankly, demand fairer treatment for ALL faculty, because this isn’t a matter of full-time vs. part-time — we’re all in the same profession with the same ultimate goals for our students, and we should be united in our efforts).

Write, and let your community, your state, and your nation know that if we want the best education the world can offer, we have to treat our educators better than we do.

My students deserve that.

writing for money $$$$ confessions

Samuel Snoek-Brown:

Simple but interesting “confession” about how much — and how little — real writers really get paid for our work. “Which, if you’re a cup half empty or full person,” Chloe writes, “this could either be incredibly dire or inspirational. I look at this list and think I’ve come a really long way. It’s obvious to say I would like more money.”

I think most of us who are working writers are nodding our heads at those lines!

Originally posted on chloe caldwell:

My friend Karina thinks money confessions are the new taboo. So here’s mine. Everything I list below, I did without an agent. There was no book advance for Legs Get Led Astray, and there haven’t been royalties for either Legs Get Led Astray or Women. The only times i really feel like I “sold out” for my writing was the GRAZIA interview and Men’s Health gig. But not even. I’m glad I did those things, they paid my rent. Everything else was written exactly the way i wanted to write it.

Age 25, pre-Legs Get Led Astray, 2011

  • Masturbating with Moxie, The Frisky, $75
  • Ortho-tricyclen ruined my relationship, The Frisky, $75
  • 7 Day Sex Plan, The Frisky: $50

(Jobs that year: Worked at my dad’s store, MUSICA, babysat)

Age 26, post Legs Get Led Astray, 2013

  • Heroin and Acne,,  $150
  • Leaning To Sit Still, The…

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Beautiful words at the Academy Awards

Late last night, shortly after the Oscars wrapped up, I posted this on my Facebook page:

I want to believe it is significant that at the whitest, malest Oscars in recent years, the night’s most rousing, most meaningful speeches were by a woman demanding equal pay for women, two African-American men spreading hope and compassion while still keeping our awareness on the continuing struggle for racial justice, a suicide survivor speaking hope and strength to every kid who might feel “weird,” and a Mexican teaching us about equality in true art and calling for more compassionate treatment of the immigrants who built and are still building America.

I don’t want their words to get lost in the reporting of tonight’s Oscars. I want their speeches to mean something.

My writer friend Marie Marshall agreed and wondered if there were transcripts available, to preserve their words. There probably are, but it’s early hours and the best I’ve found are videos accompanied by pull-quotes, so I decided to transcribe the speeches myself (parentheses link to videos of the speeches):

Patricia Arquette (best supporting actress, Boyhood):

To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America!

Common (best song, “Glory,” from Selma):

Recently, John and I got to go to Selma and perform ‘Glory’ on the same bridge that Dr. King and the people of the civil rights movement marched on fifty years ago. This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation but now is a symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and social status. The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the south side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated by love for all human beings.

John Legend (best song, “Glory,” from Selma):

Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live. We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were fifty years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for fifty years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now, the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today then were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you we are with you, we see you, we love you and march on.

Graham Moore (best adapted screenplay, The Imitation Game):

When I was sixteen years old, I tried to kill myself, because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here. And, so, I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird, or she’s different, or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes you do. I promise you do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.

Alejandro Iñárritu (best director, Birdman)

Honestly, this is crazy, in a way, talking about that little prick called ego. Ego loves competition, because, for someone to win, someone has to lose. But the paradox is that true art, true individual expression, as all the work of these incredible fellow filmmakers, can’t be compared, cant be labeled, can’t be defeated, because they exist. And our work only will be judged, as always, by time.

Alejandro Iñárritu (best picture, Birdman)

I want to dedicated this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.

Nick Hornby and Cheryl Strayed and one of the coolest nights in my literary life

Other than the publication of my own books and the Oregon Literary Fellowship I won a couple of years ago — in other words, other than events involving my own work — I’ve had a handful of truly exhilarating, giddy, can’t-stop-grinning literary moments in my life:

  • I once heard Kurt Vonnegut lecture (he did his amazing “shapes of stories” bit)
  • I once interviewed Madeleine L’Engle
  • In grad school, I spent a whole evening drinking with and interviewing Tom Franklin in what became the beginning of my masters thesis on him
  • Later in grad school, I brought Tom Franklin to my campus as a visiting author and the resulting reading, Q&A, after party, after-after party, and after-after-after party is to this day a legend in the grad program I graduated from
  • I once shook hands with Frank McCourt and talked with him for a few minutes about teaching
  • And tonight, Nick Hornby signed my cast!


Back when I was an undergrad, in 1996, my main college writing mentor, the novelist and poet (and now Reverend) David Breeden, gifted me a then-new paperback edition of High Fidelity. I was perhaps dimly aware of some book called Fever Pitch, but Hornby wasn’t really on my radar at the time, and up til then I’d only really read novels in three categories: my dad’s action-adventure novels, lots and lots of horror, and whatever I had recently discovered in my college classes. By this point, I’d already (just) been inducted into the Fraternity of Kurt Vonnegut and was devouring him, but my mentor thought it was time I read some more contemporary literature, so he loaned me Mark Leyner’s bizarre Et Tu, Babe and then, as a gift, he gave me Nick Hornby.

And Nick Hornby changed me.

It seems odd to think so all these years later, and it speaks to my relative naiveté as a reader back then, but I’d never before encountered that kind of intimacy and that confessional style in a male novel before. Most of the books by men and about men that I’d read were all funny, or all horror, or all bravado. But in Hornby’s Rob Fleming, I’d found a character who was a human being I recognized as some kind of dream version of myself — though roughly a decade older than I was then, the character felt somehow like both my coolest and my most pathetic self: hip and deeply musically literate (I am neither of these things but still wish I could be) but also immature and emotionally fragile (I’ve certainly been these, a fact I felt keenly at the time I first read the novel).

A few years later, I wrote my first completed novel under the guidance of Breeden and another of my mentors, William Woods. They kindly allowed me to write a ridiculous straight-up comedy about two clueless morons who are best friends but have a falling out over a misunderstanding in a library and spend the rest of the book trying to figure out their lives alone until they each can — well, fail to mature, really — and finally reconnect.I was no Nick Hornby and I knew it, which is why I gave up trying to be insightful and just went for broad absurdist humor, but I  told my story in short, punchy chapters, full of lists and quips and not-so-hip pop culture references. Stylistically I was sure as hell trying to be Hornby.

Later I discovered other influences (namely, Tom Franklin and Cormac McCarthy) and my long-form style shifted, but I still love the humor and the humanity and the insight and the intimacy that Hornby continues to bring to his work, whether it’s older books like About a Boy or his little-known literary study Contemporary American Fiction (yes, I actually read that book) or his beautiful screenplay adaptations of An Education and Wild or the films made from his novels or his new book, Funny Girl, which I’m eager to read.

So tonight was already a treat enough just getting to hear Hornby in conversation with Cheryl Strayed. But getting to meet the man, watching him sign that same copy of my first Nick Hornby book my former professor gave me nearly 20 years ago, and, ultimately, his agreeing to sign the cast on my still-healing writing hand (he wished me a quick recovery!) is going to be a memory I will always cherish.


The Jersey Devil puts the lotion in the basket

jdp cover feb 15 frontThe February issue of Jersey Devil Press has been out for a few days now, so surely you’ve read it by now. If you haven’t, get over there for the awesome: we ride roller coasters (of love), we do a little native (love) magic, we play with a (love) snake, we erect epic, long-lasting monuments (this is getting a little sexual now), we have heart attacks (get it?), then we run away to a deserted isle and wait for the buxom ladies (and the occasional moron) to turn up.

And then there’s that long, long leg on our cover, courtesy of Czech artist Radka Bartůsková (check out our cover-art page for the full effect of her photograph “I Am a Skin and a Lotion Soaking Up Myself“).

Who needs chocolate and flowers when you have the Jersey Devil in February?

Why I’m watching for the Watchman

First, I want to say that I am thrilled at the news of a second book from Harper Lee.

I say that first because, while I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, there is also a lot of rumor and speculation and skepticism surrounding the recent announcement about Go Set a Watchman, a kind of prequel/sequel (according to the press release, Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchman before To Kill a Mockingbird even though the events take place after To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird is effectively the back story of Go Set a Watchman).

Some people are suggesting that there is some sort of shady deal or even a conspiracy afoot — that, at best, HarperCollins is taking advantage of an elderly and possibly senile woman for purely financial gain, or that, at worst, her current lawyer is fabricating or abusing this entire situation and releasing this book against Harper Lee’s lifelong wishes. To read those rumors is to dip your toes in the waters of conspiracy theory, and if you read the commentary on some of these articles, the conspiracies get more complicated and more absurd from there.

It is, of course, entirely possible that Harper Lee, who is in fact quite old, is senile and is being taken advantage of. And it does make a kind of sense, in a simplistic, storytelling world, that, in the past 55 years, Harper Lee never published this book because she never wanted to, and the only explanation that it’s being published now is that it’s being done against her wishes.

But that reasoning only makes sense if you assume that people are manufacturing her comments quoted in the New York Times article anouncing the publication, in which she states quite clearly that she’s thrilled that people have discovered this manuscript she herself lost ages ago and that they are interested in publishing it all these years later.

But I don’t actually care about those rumors, that conspiracy speculation. If Lee is being taken advantage of, shame on anyone who would do such a thing. But as a reader, I am exhilarated at the idea of reading a second work from a writer so accomplished that she has gained a place in American letters on the strength of a single book.

Which leads me to the skepticism, because a lot of people are nervous at the idea that this second book, which Lee wrote first but never published, is in fact as bad as most first books tend to be, and that it might ruin her reputation. And they could certainly be right. We have plenty of examples of authors publishing earlier works late in their career just on the strength of their name, or, as some have (to my mind cynically or offensively) made the comparison, works published posthumously after a writer has died, especially when that writer has expressly asked those works not be published. (It seems grossly offensive to me to suggest that Harper Lee’s situation, while she is alive and, at least according to her comments in the New York Times, lucid, is in any way comparable to a dead author, or to presume that we know what her wishes are in this situation, let alone that we know her wishes are the opposite of what she herself is quoted as saying this week. But such is the nature of the Internet, and such has always been the nature of readers: we love to assume that we know what everyone else is thinking and doing, and we love to latch onto the authorial intentional fallacy.)

This latter skepticism, particularly as connected to this question of an author’s right to deny the publication of a work, is interesting to me. I confess (and I’m taking this only in terms of postumously published works and not getting into Harper Lee’s current wishes) that I fall into that camp who believes that an author’s wishes after death can be trumped by readers’ desires for more material. I certainly understand the desire to protect an author’s reputation and legacy, particularly from people who might publish works without concern for the author’s legacy or any attempt to honor the author’s voice or style or stated intent for a piece. But, personally, I feel that when I die, the rights to my work will go to whoever inherits them and I have no more say in the matter because I’ll be dead. I’m not a Viking; my works and my story do not assure my immortality except on the page. Let people do with me what they will.

But this is not the case with Harper Lee, because she is still alive, and since I don’t know her medical condition or her mental state (and I doubt any but her closest friends and family do either), I have to assume that this is something she intended. And even if she didn’t, a lot of cynical people are, however cynical, rightly pointing out that this book, now that it’s been rediscovered, would have appeared in print after her death anyway. Such is the nature of things. So what harm does it do to be published in now, especially if it is done in a way that can benefit Lee financially while she is still alive?

All of which is beside the point. Because all the speculation about the damage this book might do to her reputation is dependent upon the assumption that the book is no good and will definitely damage her. And I make no such assumptions. Firstly, why on earth would we assume that one of our greatest modern writers, whose reputation we are so fiercely protecting based on a single text, would have produced anything less than good, if not a second stellar masterpiece? And secondly, even if the book is mediocre, if her first book is so good that we seek to protect her from a second, then how can that first book possibly be threatened by a lesser work? Each book should be able stand on its own.

Most writers have greater works and lesser works. Jane Austen saw the publication of two of her books posthumously, both of which were not the fully realized texts she might have published had she lived long enough to finish revising them, as well as the publication of her juvenilia and several unfinished works. She is still our beloved Jane, and we still cherish her work. (Austen’s Northanger Abbey was, like Go Set a Watchman, Austen’s first finished novel, but it never saw publication until after Austen’s death, and while a lot of people shrug off that novel as inferior to, say, Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, I love Northanger Abbey. Austen’s other posthumous and technically finished though unpolished novel was Persuasion, and that novel routinely vies with P&P for readers’ favorite Austen novel.) Why would it be otherwise with Harper Lee?

So I don’t begrudge anyone their apprehension about this new book, particularly because it is so easy to conflate excitement with nervousness. And I don’t begrudge anyone their conspiracy theories or speculation regarding the deal that led to this publication, because, if not in the comments then at least in the articles I’ve read, most people seem to be expressing their concerns in an interest of protecting Harper Lee and her legacy. And that’s respectable.

But I for one am eager to see the new book, both as a writer and a student of craft and as a fan of Lee’s (now first, not only) novel.

As I told my writing students when the news was first announced, this is a reminder to us that those books we keep in our drawers might still be worth something, if only we can live long enough to work on them enough to make them beautiful.

And it’s a reminder that it’s never too late, and we’re never too old, to tell a good story.

A left-hand turn

Last Tuesday night I watched a blender fall from my kitchen cabinet and reflexively I reached to catch it. I was either too fast or too slow, because the blender hit the granite countertop and shattered just as my hand arrived. In effect, I wound up punching quarter-inch-thick, cut glass, resulting in an inch-long slice along my pinky knuckle that reached deep, to the bone.

It was my left hand. My writing hand.

My writing hand.

My wife and I spent all that night and into the dawn hours in an emergency room as doctors and residents and nurses flushed the blood from my wound, tied off a severed artery in my hand, and took x-rays, warning me that there might be damage to the tendon. Then they stitched me up and sent me to a hand specialist.

The next day, I noticed my pinkie was dangling, limp. It contracted fine, joining the rest of my fingers in a sore fist, but it could not extend. I chalked it up to residual numbness and swelling from the ER, and maybe a side effect of the painkillers. But on Friday, the specialist confirmed what I feared: the tendon was severed and I would need surgery.

So far, I had been taking all of this in stride. I’m not afraid of my own blood, and I’m not unfamiliar with emergency rooms, having suffered bleeding ulcers and crushed vertebrae in the past. In the emergency room last week, I eagerly watched as the doctors stretched open my wound to expose my bones and manipulate the knuckles and the tendon in there. I was fascinated by my own internal anatomy.

But as I spoke with the hand specialist, who was describing the days of surgery and recovery, the splint or cast I would have to wear for at least a month, the nearly twelve months of physical therapy to recover full use of my hand, I began to feel disoriented. Disconnected from myself. Worried.

As the uneasiness swelled over the next few days, I tried to sit with it, to understand it, and I finally realized that this wasn’t just a wound to my hand — this was a threat to my writing.

I typically do most of my writing these days on a keyboard, mostly my laptop, so I don’t have the same connection between my writing and my writing hand as I might have had a decade ago. And I know that my dread here is a bit ridiculous. Plenty of writers have carried on under much more trying circumstances than this. And I trust my doctors and I know this will all heal up in the end, and I’ll be fine.

But every time I feel that twinge in my pinky, when I see the impotence of it as it dangles below the rest of my fingers, every time I bump this lame finger against something because I’m unaccustomed to its uselessness, I feel somehow shaken in my identity as a writer.

Long ago, I had a discussion with my students about the tactility of writing and the difference between writing in pencil or pen and writing on a keyboard. We all agreed that there is some qualitative difference, though I continued to lean in favor of my machines. This past fall, a new student of mine was adamantly anti-typing and preferred to write all of his essays for class in longhand with a fountain pen on nice paper. I admired — and sympathized with — his desire to feel his writing. He even gifted me an inexpensive fountain pen just to remind me of what writing felt like. I took the gift as a challenge to reconnect with handwriting.

Now I cannot use his pen for at least a month, maybe longer. And for the rest of this term, when I grade my students’ essays, I’ll have to do so by computer, instead of my usual habit of scratching notes in pencil on their pages. The same is true of my own writing — it will all have to be by computer now, by necessity rather than by choice.

Technology affords us so many avenues these days, and I’ve been typing comments on Facebook and writing emails to colleagues and friends. I have voice recognition software on my phone, which I’ve blogged about before, and I’m using it now to write this blog post. So I’ll be able to write, and in much the same way as I usually write.

But in truth, this blog post is the most writing, in both seriousness and in length, I’ve done since the accident. I haven’t written any fiction in a week now. I have materials in my study and beside my bed, waiting for me to get to work. I have files still open on my laptop from a week ago, before the blender. But I’ve had this psychological block for days. Because I can’t write long-hand, I suddenly don’t want to write any other way.

My mother’s first comment when she found out about my injury was to worry about the novel I’ve been working on this winter. And she’s right. Even with the technology of typewriting or voice recognition, the work will be so much slower now that I worry about regaining the kind of momentum that drove me through my first published novel.

I wonder how long it will be before I can write the way I used to. I wonder even if I should be writing the way I used to.

One writer friend of mine, when reading the news of my injury on Facebook, told me this injury and long recovery might be a good thing. He related how he had once injured his hand and in rehabilitating his fingers to a pen or pencil, he had to slow down, which in turn slowed down his thought processes and his consideration of the words he used. He said being injured made him a better writer. I don’t doubt this at all. In fact, I anticipate it. I hope this will make me a better writer, or at least a more mindful writer, which as a Buddhist I should be striving for anyway.

So that’s how I’m trying to embrace this injury: it is a chance to rethink how I write, to slow down and improve my writing. This is a chance to rediscover myself as a writer. To consider all over again what it is I do and why I do it.

One thing I know for certain: I will keep writing even through the injury. Especially through the injury. When my hand specialist said that it might take a year to regain full use of my fingers, I almost laughed at him. I was thinking at the time, before I’d had a chance to walk away and overthink things and begin to freak out, that this doctor didn’t understand what it means to a writer to have full use of his hands. He doesn’t realize how hard I will work — how much of the work I already do is hard — and how eager I am to recover. How fast I will work to regain the use of my writing hand.

Being a writer means living with this bizarre, lurking self-doubt, this fragility that makes us all so prone to fearing rejection, bemoaning hiccups, worrying about any imperfection. We make this myth of writer’s block — and it is a myth — our invented reality.

But writers live a contradiction, because being a writer means also being determined in the face of anything, it means feeling like you have so much to say that no amount of self-doubt can stop the words from coming, that you have to write no matter what.

I’ve wrestled with this blog post for days, feeling I needed to write about what I was feeling and thinking, in part to laugh at myself for being so worried about it and in part to understand that worry and work through it. But I’ve come to think of this writing, these past couple of days, as a siphon. I often tell my students that writing is a bit like siphoning gas — you suck on the hose and spit out the fuel until the gas starts flowing on its own, and then you just let gravity do the rest. You write and you write until the words start flowing, and then you let them come.

It’s taken me a couple of days of thinking and overthinking and worrying and speaking into my phone and typing with one hand and massaging my sore wound, but the words are coming. I’m ready to get back to work.

Writing hand or no, I have to keep writing. No matter what.

Going home again

I don’t normally think of video games in narrative, literary terms. Sure, plenty of video games depend on story and follow some kind of linear narrative, but (and I’m not an extensive gamer, so gamers, feel free to add titles in the comments) I don’t often come across a game that is so immersive and so focused on storytelling (as opposed to puzzle-solving or other gameplay elements) that it feels more like interactive literature than anything else. That old game MYST felt a bit like that. Some of the best Nancy Drew games from HerInteractive can sometimes feel a bit like that.

"Gone Home" by The Fullbright Company - - Steve Gaynor, The Fullbright Company. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Gone Home” by The Fullbright Company.

But I just finished Gone Home, and this game feels like something else altogether. It’s a bit like a novella that you get to literally (well, digitally, anyway) walk around inside of.

The tease for the game is intriguing enough: “You arrive home after a year abroad. You expect your family to greet you, but the house is empty. Something’s not right. Where is everyone? And what’s happened here?” The promo material describes the game as “an interactive exploration simulator,” and promises an exhaustive, immersive environment: “Interrogate every detail of a seemingly normal house to discover the story of the people who live there. Open any drawer and door. Pick up objects and examine them to discover clues.”

I love that level of detail, and in most games like this, I’m often frustrated by the limitations of what you can mess with in the game. For me, the restriction of an interactive environment to just a handful of key “clues” when there’s SO MUCH MORE going on in the background has always just served to reinforce the artificiality of a game, and this problem only gets worse as game visuals get more detailed. Why put all that effort into fleshing out richly complex backgrounds if I can’t actually engage with that detail? But Gone Home promised that I could engage, that I could actually live in this “seemingly normal house” and interact with anything.

And the screenshots seemed to reinforce this:

And in the trailer the gameplay looked smooth and organic, very much first-person POV but without being too shaky, without too much effort to artificially imitate a “human gait” with that swimming up-and-down head bob I’ve disliked since the old Doom games. It all just looks so beautiful:

If you watch that trailer, you might have caught the final, deciding factor in my buying the game: that “destination” on “Katie’s” luggage tag? Portland.

That’s right gang. This game is set in my own hometown of Portland, OR. Or, just outside it, really — an old mansion in the hills west of the city.

Screen shot 2015-01-12 at 9.54.21 PMIt’s also set in the mid-90s, and while the game is packed with pop culture references to the time period in general — an invitation to see Pulp Fiction in the theater, a comment about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a poster for The X-Files — it’s also alive with these wonderful references to cultural moments distinctive to the Pacific Northwest: the waning of grunge, underground punk and demo tapes (the game’s load screen is a cassette tape), riot grrrl music, zines.

Katie’s dad is a writer; her mom is a ranger with the Forestry Service. The whole thing just screams nostalgia for me, not only for my own mid-90s life but also for the dream of the Portland I always wished I could have lived in back then, the culture I was trying to be a part of the best I could from way down in rural Texas.

It’s the kind of Portland a lot of people move here expecting; it’s the kind of Portland a lot of people already here keep fighting to preserve.

And here it is, in a video game, in a quiet, intimate narrative, in the first-person. It is preserved, and for a few hours, you get to live it in. You even get to listen to it: the game features songs (in the form of “bootleg” cassette tapes you find in the game) from actual riot grrrl bands Heavens to Betsy and Bratmobile, as well as the Portland band The Youngins.

But that’s all just icing. The cake — the sweet, rich world of the game — is the story itself, which is eerie and unsettling and heartbreaking and beautiful. It actually brought me to tears not just at the end but throughout the game. And it can do this because, as intense and atmospheric as the environment is — lights left on in the otherwise empty house, the place ransacked, a storm raging outside, dark corners and secret passages and deeply unsettling images — the main force in the game is its characters. Despite being absent at the outset of the game, everyone mentioned — the parents, the sister, the friends, the friends of friends, the colleagues, the relatives — they all have such rich backstories, which develop such complexity in those characters, that they feel present in the house, almost haunting it.

And that’s what makes this feel like fiction, like literature. The whole thing feels like you’re walking around not in someone’s game or even in someone’s house, but in someone’s life. In multiple lives. And the layers in those lives that you uncover as you progress through the game are expertly placed, unfolding and changing as the game goes on, uncovering inner lives and altering your assumptions as you go.

That’s where the real mystery in the game lies. You’re trying to figure out where your family (Katie’s family) has gone, but in the process you discover who your family really is, and how they’ve been changing while you’ve been away, and how that changes you and your perception of yourself.

And the whole thing speaks in echoes, speaks to broader issues of who we, as a society, used to be, and how we’ve changed and are still changing and how we still need to change.

I have to stop there before I give too much away. Before I get any more carried away.

I just really loved this story. In the way that I love a good book, the way I sometimes like to hold a book to my heart when I finish it. I wish I could press the gigabytes of this game into my chest.

It was that kind of experience.

Repairable Men, by John Carr Walker

Folks who follow me on Twitter or Goodreads have likely already seen this review of John Carr Walker’s Repairable Men, but I liked the book so much that I wanted to include the review here, too.

Repairable Men: StoriesRepairable Men: Stories by John Carr Walker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Repairable Men starts out simply enough, a terse story of brotherly conflict and maturity and domestic discord and the things men inherit from their fathers. But in the last paragraph the whole world shifts, signaling what the book truly is: a resonant mythology of masculinity.

You wouldn’t think we needed more stories like this. Surely we have had plenty of men telling stories about men — about our efforts at heroism and our pathetic defeats, about how hard men have it even though we live in a world of men.

But, it turns out, we do need John Carr Walker’s stories. Because as hard and sometimes violent as these stories can be, Walker treats the characters with a gentle sympathy and humanity. The book has its share of abusive fathers and bumbling fuck-ups, but it also has fathers who are simultaneously sad in their clinging to old dreams but beautiful and heroic in their love for their sons. It has lost brothers returning to themselves and bringing order to the world. It has tenderness and confusion, and when it reveals that there aren’t any answers in the world — in spite of the title, very few of these characters are repairable — it offers you the comfort of knowing that you aren’t alone in that revelation.

My favorite stories in this book are the ones about fathers and sons. Some of them, like “The Atlas Show” or “Candelario” or “The Rules,” are overt, the father-son relationship central to the story. Others, like “Ain’t It Pretty” or “Brother Rhino,” are more oblique, glancing at the father or the son from the edges of some other story, but that relationship still defines — almost always in negative space — the world the characters inhabit. There’s something about the way Walker writes these stories that speaks to me, as though the author and I share some secret.

In the same way that nostalgia is both sickening and addictive, or that bittersweet combines opposites, Walker creates a terrific combination of unease and comfort in these stories, the two emotions always slipping past each other like two magnets of the same polarity, but doing so with that same invisible pressure. I always like to hold two opposing magnets together, to feel them push against each other with a force I can feel but can’t see or fully understand — and I like to press them together as hard as I can until they meet. That’s the sort of thing Walker accomplishes in all these stories but especially in the father-son stories: that invisible pressure, and the weird delight in pushing past the pressure.

Repairable Men is a powerful little book, and I eagerly await John Carr Walker’s next book.

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