Tacoma’s Creative Colloquy doesn’t crawl, it PARTIES

Last Wednesday, I ventured into the heart of Tacoma’s Stadium District to experience as much of my new hometown’s creative and literary scenes as I could in a single night.

12771928_210946462591234_5163157776731370438_oThe event was the second annual Creative Colloquy Crawl, a kind of literary and creative “pub crawl” through businesses in one of Tacoma’s coolest and most creative neighborhoods.

Not every event was at a pub, of course, and not every event was strictly “literary” in the sense of the printed word. In addition to storytelling and poetry readings, the crawl included interactive horoscopes, a teen writing workshop, music and theatre performances, graphic narrative and street art . . . even selections from banned books read by burlesque dancers!

The downside to any literary “crawl” event, of course, is that for everything you attend, you miss a handful of other amazing events. In my first outing, I’m sad to say I only made it to two events (I suffered a mild asthma attack at the end of the evening and had to miss the burlesque dancers). But those two readings were stunning displays of the talent in Tacoma!

My first event was Candlelit Stories, an hour of ghost stories and eerie tales hosted in the “library” room of the amazing Sanford and Son antique shops. (Yes, I had the theme song for the old tv show in my head the rest of the evening, which was great because I loved that show!)

The show featured readings by YA author Kimberly Derting, urban fantasy author Mark Henry, urban fantasy author Lish McBride (Necromancer), Creative Colloquy editor Elizabeth Beck (who did a very cool performance piece with her story!) and professional storyteller (and all-around badass) Sarah Comer.

The first three readers were terrific — a nice blend of spooky and humorous — but the party really got rolling with Elizabeth Beck’s performance piece, a dinner scene with unseen guests, and then Sarah Comer (who also served as emcee) killed it with two stunning and expertly delivered classic campfire ghost stories, including one set right there in Sanford and Son!

I had plenty to chose from for my next hour, but I wanted a beer, so I headed to Odd Otter Brewery for Poetry & Pints, where I enjoyed some powerful poems by Emilie Rommel Shimkus, Paul Nelson, and Peter Munro.


Emcee Christina Butcher


Peter Munro and the audience out in Fireman’s Park

The Crawl had a bit of overlap with Odd Otter’s regular pub trivia night, but emcee (and host of the podcast Literally Tacoma) Christina Butcher did a fantastic job of segueing into the poetry readings. Emilie Rommel Shimkus was fierce in her reading, and she worked that noisy bar like the pro she is (she’s also an actress); and Paul Nelson had a fantastic blend of wry humor and punchy, poignant observations. But for the last performance, we realized the night was lovely and we decided to give way to the second half of the bar’s trivia contest as the lit folks drifted across the street to Fireman’s Park, where Peter Munro unleashed on us an epic narrative sea poem, all waves and rhythms and harbor pilots and commercial fishermen. It was a fabulous piece and a perfect way for me to conclude my evening, as I climbed Tacoma’s Spanish Steps and paused to look out over the nighttime Port of Tacoma, the black water nestling long, yellow-lighted cargo vessels.

Overall, I had a wonderful time, and I’ve heard this past week that others at other events had just as much fun, heard equally wonderful work. But more importantly, for me, I got a deep view inside the creative heart of Tacoma, and gang, Creative Colloquy does things right.

Celebrating 40 with my literary family

Last Friday, my first novel, Hagridden, turned two years old.

And I turned 40.

About six weeks before that, I moved away from Portland, that beautiful city full of beautiful writers and publishers that I have called home and family, respectively, for the past five years. So for my 40th birthday, I decided to drive the two hours back down to Portland and throw myself a combination birthday-and-farewell party, and the only way I knew how to say goodbye to my Portland literary community was with a literary party.

So I turned it into a reading.


My wife got to organizing the food and drinks and decor (she’s amazing, y’all!), and she also helped name the event: Sam’s “Vintage Dude” 40th Birthday Party & Literary Reading Extravaganza. I decided to hold it at Portland’s Independent Publishing Resource Center, a cherished Portland institution where I’d also held my Hagridden release party two years ago, in part because the IPRC is suffering the rapid-development pinch that so many artists and creative types in Portland are experiencing — their rent had tripled overnight, and they needed to raise money to find a new, more affordable home — and I thought hosting my party there might help them raise some money. (I’m happy to report that the day before my party, the IPRC met their funding goal! But their Kickstarter is still going, and they will need more help down the road, so if you can chip in a little, there’s still time to help out.)

From there, I just needed to find a roster of folks to read.

If I could have invited every writer within driving distance of Portland to read, I would have, and I would gladly have sat in a chair for the months it would have taken to hear everyone I know and love share their words at a mic. But I couldn’t invite everyone, so I had to make some tough choices. And what I chose was to have a mix: some fiction writers, some poets, some essayists, some long-time Oregonians with celebrated books that I absolutely love, some transplants like me with books I have long been eager to see in print, some former students-turned-emerging writers . . . .

The final reading roster for the evening was, in order:

  • Renée Muzquiz, my good friend from Texas, who opened the evening with a few of her beautiful songs;
  • My wife, Jennifer (billed as “Surprise mystery reader #1!”), whose poetry I have always loved since we first met in college — she read a few of my favorites and wowed the crowd!;
  • Aubrey Jarvis, a former student of mine who is now one hell of an essayist and who is going to make a fierce publisher or editor or agent someday;
  • Mark Russell, a dear, wonderful human being who has been fantastically supportive of my work over the years even though he’s also busy being a brilliant satirist and the writer for DC Comics’ Prez series and the current and already-celebrated Flintstones series;
  • Bright and Shiny, a Portland band I love to pieces and which includes two of my favorite writers in Portland, Jessica Ann and Jonathan Oak — they played our “intermission” while we did cake from Tacoma’s Corina Bakery and whiskey toasts with bourbon from Portland’s Eastside Distilling;
  • Monica Drake, an icon of Portland literature and a good friend and colleague, who, like Mark, has been profoundly supportive these past few years and whose books, especially her recent story collection The Folly of Loving Life, are effectively the raw essence of Portland distilled into prose;
  • Yousef Allouzi, another former student of mine who is a profoundly thoughtful, attentive prose craftsman — know his name, because you’re going to be buying his books someday;
  • Todd McNamee, my dear dharma buddy and a gifted Portland-born writer who books Drifting and Spirits you need to find online and whose current novel is available free, in serialized form, on his website;
  • The “Surprise mystery reader #2!” — actually, me, because much as I wanted to just sit back and enjoy the work of others all evening, my wife convinced me to join in the fun, and I’m glad she did;
  • and Jenny Forrester, the founder of Portland’s renowned Unchaste Readers series and the author of the memoir I think I’ve been anticipating more than any other for the past few years — it’s called Narrow River, Wide Sky, and you can buy it from Hawthorne Books starting March 1, 2017!

(My good friend and Portland poet Dena Rash Guzman was also on the lineup, but she fell ill the day of the party — but I want you to know you can buy her first book, Life Cycle, now, and look for her next book of “Joseph” poems by the end of the year!)

Of course, it wasn’t all authors and musicians performing at the party — a great many of my friends were there, like me, to listen and laugh and enjoy each other’s company! Among them was Laura Standfill, the founder of Forest Avenue Press, who is always ready with her camera, and she took a ton of photos throughout the evening. Amazingly, so did my wife, even though she was also setting up book and beverage tables and serving cake and organizing toasts and reading poetry at the mic.


Jennifer getting the words going with her lovely poetry (photo by LS)


We had cake from Tacoma’s Corina Bakery (photo by JSB) . . .


Monica Drake showed us all how a classy Portland author works a crowd! She even replaced a character name in Clown Girl with “Dr. Sam,” an epithet the whole crowd picked up from my students! (photo by LS)


And then Jenny Forrester wrapped up the evening with a beautiful excerpt from her forthcoming memoir. (photo by LS)

One of my favorite things about the whole evening was the book table, where, on one side, all the readers set up their books and albums for sale and, on the other side, my wife arranged a very cool “creativity corner” where my friends could write messages on a typewriter “guestbook” and use stickers and markers to craft little zines and microbooks for me!

But my favorite part of the whole evening was introducing friends to each other, helping my fellow writers make new connections — and, most of all, hugging all my friends, all my literary family, and realizing that actually, I’m not going to miss them at all! Because they are family, and we’ll stay in touch, and I’m only a couple hours away so I’ll be back to help them celebrate all their milestones, too — their books and their birthdays — and if this long and lovely literary evening showed me anything, it showed me that we really are here for each other. We truly are family. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

Two years ago, I had the best birthday I could have imagined with the release party for my first novel in my old hometown in Texas. Last year, I had one hell of a birthday in San Francisco while reading with good literary friends and celebrating the first anniversary of Hagridden. And now this outpouring of love and fun I experienced in Portland as I turned 40, and to everyone I’ve named here in this post and a whole bunch of unnamed people at my party and a LOT more who couldn’t make it but sent me their love, and to the IRPC who let us take up their space for an evening, and especially — far and away mostly — to my wife who made the whole evening possible: I will love you (and owe you favors) forever! I wasn’t really that hung up on the whole 40-years-old thing and I honestly just wanted to have a little fun for my birthday and say a brief goodbye to a wonderful city and some dear friends, but everyone who came and everyone in Portland, you made last weekend (and the past five years) a transformative event that I will never (even in my doddering old age), never, ever forget. And I love you all, more than even this writer’s words can express.

What’s past is prologue

In my series of blog posts (and, this past spring, my series of writing workshops) on researching for historical fiction, I’ve discussed “going to the source,” by which I usually mean interviewing live people, getting expert opinions or local insights or eyewitness accounts. But as I explained in my workshop a few months back, sometimes the best “live person” source is long since dead and gone, so you have to rely on the next-best thing: contemporary accounts. Letters, legal documents, newspaper reports.

One of my current book projects is a novel set on an Oklahoma farm in the mid-1920s. It’s (very) loosely based on members of my family and events that happened to them, so I’ve been relying on a lot of those old print-source documents — my grandmother’s stories, her parents’ and aunts’ and uncles’ letters, her grandparents’ land deeds, and so on. But when my parents visited us here in Tacoma recently and we all toured the Fort Nisqually living history museum, my mother bought me an early birthday gift from the museum’s gift shop: a practical guide to farm life, written in 1909, called Old-Time Farm and Garden Devices and How to Make Them, by Rolfe Cobleigh.

3476388Actually, what she bought me was a verbatim reprint published almost 100 years later, but the text is exactly as it appeared back in 1909. And folks, this book is an absolute TROVE! Already I’ve learned about hand-built grindstones, improvised “coolers” made of barrels buried in the earth or metal bins dropped into water wells, the difference between stanchions and stalls for keeping milk cows (“The only point in favor of stanchions is that they take up less room than stalls, but the increase in milk is a reward for allowing more space and convenience to each cow”), the best method for butchering hogs and where to build a slaughterhouse for that purpose . . . . All of which is informing my characters and their lives as I develop my novel.

Along the way, I’ve also picked up tips on how to craft a bread-slicer for evenly sliced homemade bread, how to power a washing machine with a bicycle, how to fashion a simple fire alarm from weighted string and a bell . . . . and I’m not even halfway through the book!

Most of this is simply fodder for my book, even the odd trivia like the bike-powered washing machine. I don’t know if I’ll actually use that contraption in the novel, but this book is so full of weird little innovations and improvisations that I could certainly use it to “shop the catalogue,” so to speak.

And I’ve skimmed ahead a bit, out of curiosity, and discovered a whole series of floorplans and instructions for hand-building farmhouses and barns, which is going to prove invaluable for defining the spaces my characters live and work in. (Knowing the layout of your characters’ homes can often be just as important as checking the map!)

But much of the material in this book is also good, practical advice for life today. In our new home, I have a garage with space for a workshop, and I’ve been thinking about building my own workbench out there; this book tells me how to build it as well as what tools I should keep there! In that garage, the people who sold us our house left an old glass display cabinet that I’ve been thinking about turning into a piece of dining-room furniture; I kid you not, this book has instructions for how to do just that! Later in the book (the back copy promises), I’ll learn the best form of trellis for roses, something I’ve actually been wondering now that I have rosebushes in my yard!

I’m also spotting future sections in the book about staining and preserving wood (I have a fence I need to work on), crafting a homemade gate latch (I’m not happy with the gate latch I have, and this book’s version looks cheap, easy to make myself, and exactly the solution I was imagining), and keeping hawks away from your chickens (okay, I’m not actually going to start raising chickens, but I find all this stuff fascinating).

To be honest, a lot of the material in this book feels like stuff I should have known already. If my mother’s father — who came from a family of farmers and took over his family farm at the age of 12 — had lived longer, or if I’d thought to ask him these sorts of questions when I was younger, he could have taught me a lot of this himself. I still have pieces of furniture he built, and you can see the kind of simple craftsmanship this book describes in my grandfather’s work. Often, while reading the book, I can remember the smell of his workbench in his garage, that distinctive blend of sawdust and machine oil with faint undertones of rust and stale cigarette smoke leftover from before he quit smoking. I remember his strawberry beds and sunflower stalks in his backyard, and the terrifying goose named Daisy who thought she was a dog and liked to chase me around the yard, barking and biting me, when I was just a toddler. He was an oilman by then, but I think there was always something of the farmer in him, and I remember his stories about working by lantern-light, using the outhouse, hitching up the horses and riding in the “buggy” to church on Sundays.

Reading this book feels a bit like reconnecting with him.

In short: this is one of the most valuable books I’ve ever put on my shelf, and it’s going to have a permanent home in my writing study. So thanks, Mom, for that early birthday gift!

1048976PS: my wife’s early birthday gift from my mother, also from that museum gift shop at Fort Nisqually? The American Frugal Housewife, by Lydia Maria Francis Child! Originally published in 1832, the book is full of not only advice on frugality but also loads of other practical information, like “simply written recipes for roasting a pig, preparing a calf’s head and buffalo tongue, as well as fixing corned beef, hasty pudding, carrot pie, apple water, cranberry pudding, and scores of other tasty and filling dishes. [Child’s] advice for non-culinary matters included suggestions for removing grease spots; cleaning pearls and white kid gloves; relieving chilblains, dysentery, and the night sweats; educating one’s daughters; and dozens of other domestic concerns.” This is all advice from the early 1800s, a bit earlier than any of my books or book ideas are set, but you know I’ll be borrowing this book from my wife frequently just for ideas. Also, the author? The back copy describes her as a “newspaperwoman, novelist, and ardent advocate of women’s rights.” Hurray for early feminism and independent women, and happy 19th-Amendment Day, y’all!

* The title of this post is, of course, Shakespeare, but I first heard it in my freshman year of college: my first literature professor, Dr. Kathleen Hudson, said this FREQUENTLY and burned it into my brain. That and “Make your own myth” have stayed with me all these years and still inform a lot of what I do. Thanks, Doc!🙂

The Captain’s shoes

About eight months ago, my paternal grandfather died. I’ve written about him on the blog before; just look for any posts about Capt. Ted Snoek. He was 95 years old when he moved on, and his memorial service drew a wonderful crowd. My family invited me to speak at the service. I wrote a piece about my grandfather’s shoes. I told my wife that it was the most important — and the hardest — thing I’d written to date. People seemed to like it, though I’m amazed anyone could understand me — I wept through the whole thing.

Last week, my parents came up the Pacific Northwest for a visit, and they brought me some of my grandfather’s effects: a file box; a plaque his Seaman Center had given him; a small, intricately carved side table he’d purchased 70 years ago in India . . .

. . . and a pair of his shoes.

I’ve memorialized a few people on this blog over the years, writers and teachers I’ve long admired. So it seems fitting, now that I’m crying over these shoes in my hands, to share the memorial I wrote for my beloved grandfather, Capt. Ted Snoek.

This is what I said:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

And since this is a story about Ted Snoek, chances are, you have heard it before.

Something like 25 years ago, when I was in my early teens and hitting my first growth spurt, my Grandpa genes kicked in and my feet outgrew the rest of me. I was still in middle school when I hit size 11; by high school I was wearing what were then size 12. My family went to visit my grandparents, and one day Grandpa pulled me aside, led me down the hall to his room in the back of the house, where he kept his huge desk and two twin beds for grandkids and his church suits in a small closet. He opened the closet and started pulling out shoes for me to inspect.

He was offering me his shoes.

You know Grandpa. You know his shoes. He wore size 14 D. For decades, he had to special-order them. Each one seemed longer than my arm. And these were lovely, classic dress shoes, brown Oxfords, beautiful shoes that I could barely hold in two hands. He asked if I wanted to try them on. I laughed and said, “Grandpa, I’ll never be able to fit into these!”

He said, “Well, not now. But you never know.”

This sounds like a metaphor, and it is, but by now, I do know. Both figuratively and literally, I’ll never be able to fill that man’s shoes.

Actually, there’s no reason any of you would have heard that story before, but I bet you’ve heard one like it, or experienced it yourselves. Because this is who Ted Snoek was: generous, always thinking of others, always trying to give things to people. Food, furniture, files—boxes and boxes of old receipts and genealogy records. Once, my grandfather gave me an old plank full of rusting nails half-driven into the wood. They were his nail collection. He wanted to pass it on to me.

But the thing he and my grandmother gave the most was of themselves. Everyone who wanted to could count Ted Snoek as their family. My mother never called him her father-in-law, she always called him “Dad”; to others, she referred to him as her second father. My good friend Apryl—and Roy will probably tell you more of this story in a bit—she was for most of my childhood a cousin of mine, until I got old enough to realize that she wasn’t related to me at all—she’d simply adopted Ted as her own grandfather, and he gladly adopted her right back. My friends and my sister’s friends and my brother’s friends, some of whom are here today, all knew Ted Snoek simply as Grandpa. Even a teacher friend of my mother’s, Debbie, referred to him not as “Mr. Snoek” or “Ted” but as “Grandpa.” Last week, I received a message from Ellie Cole, a member of Ted and Effie’s old church in Groves. She told me that my grandparents were about the same age as her own parents, and that Ted and Effie—and this is a quote—“were like parents to us too. When I had problems, I would seek them out and they would feed me and comfort me.”

In my Buddhist community back in Portland, we have a tradition around Christmas called Bodhisattva Night. We gather and tell stories about people we consider bodhisattvas, which are sort of like saints of compassion, people who give everything of themselves for the benefit of others. This year, I told a story about how, just a handful of years ago, my grandfather had taken in a troubled young boy. He gave him a room, food, work around the house. The boy stole from my grandparents and used drugs in the house, so Grandpa had to uninvite him. I asked what would happen if the boy ever came around again. Grandpa was cautious, mindful of the risk involved, but he told me, “Jesus said, knock, and the door shall be opened, so if the boy knocks, I suppose I’ll open the door.”

When I finished the story, one of the community members said, “He sounds like a remarkable man. He must have been a bodhisattva to you!”

Without hesitation, I said, “Oh, he was. My whole life.”

My whole life.

That’s something I realized last week, thinking about Ted Snoek’s remarkable 95 years on this earth. There isn’t a person in this room who is older than Ted Snoek was; every person in our family and among his friends drew our first breath in a world that already included Ted Snoek. He has been here our whole lives. And in that time, look at all he’s given us. Each of us, whether we’re his youngest great-grandchild or his eldest sibling, we each have 95 years worth of Ted Snoek to carry around with us.

I plan to carry mine in my shoes, like paper pushed into the toes to help the fit. Perhaps, with his help, with the example of his life, I can try to finally fill his shoes someday.

These are my grandfather’s shoes:


I wasn’t kidding about never being able to fill his shoes. Here is my grandfather’s right shoe — the left shoe is mine from a similarly styled pair:


Today, I have a study that feels, to me, a bit like my grandfather’s old room in the back of his house. It has a closet where I keep not suits but winter coats. And now, that closet will hold my grandfather’s shoes, the same as his study closet once held them.

Comics I’m reading (and why)

The past week, I’ve been stopping in a few of Tacoma’s comics shops trying to find my new comics “home” (so far, the two I like best, Destiny City Comics and Stargazer Comics, have different qualities to recommend them, and I might wind up shopping at both), but the other day, I dropped into Stargazer Comics and struck up a conversation with the dude behind the counter about how much we both love Mark Russell‘s new Flintstones comic from DC. And it got me thinking about what I’m collecting these days, and why, so I thought I’d write about it.

20160807_170154Let’s start with Thor, who is the reason I resumed collecting single-issue comics in the first place. (I used to be a die-hard in the early ’90s and still have most of that collection.) When news broke that the original Thor was losing his hammer and a woman would be taking up not only Mjolnir but also the mantle and even the name of Thor, I was intrigued. So I picked up the first issue, and from the beginning, I was hooked. The gender issues at work, in the original eight-issue Thor run and the current The Mighty Thor, are impressive — and necessary — and while they sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed (as they do in, say, Thor #5, where lightweight villain Crusher Creel actually utters the sentence, “Damn feminists are ruining everything!” and Thor, as she knocks the jerk out with a fist to the jaw, thinks internally, “That’s for saying ‘feminist’ like it’s a four-letter word, creep”), they are generally brilliantly handled and tremendously refreshing in the male-dominated realm of superheroes. One of my favorite moments so far is when the old Thor, who now goes by Odinson, acknowledges that this new Thor has wholly earned not just the hammer but also the name and in utter respect, he relinquishes the name to her. Later, another villain refers to her as “She-Thor” or “Lady Thor” and — with a hammer to the face — Thor quickly asserts her right to the name without any modifiers: she is simply and utterly THOR.


I actually own this comic.

So it has gone with the Thor and The Mighty Thor series, and while there have been the occasional hiccups (that Thor interlude with Crusher Creel was one; the “time-out” issues of The Mighty Thor where Loki narrates old stories was another), the series has since delved into some fascinating territory, addressing identity (gender and otherwise), friendship and family relationships, and — most recently and best of all — the concept of strength in the face of terminal illness. It’s been a stunning run so far, and while I seem to always have gravitated toward “alternate Thors” (yes, I did once collect Thunderstrike), I hope this new iteration of Thor sticks around for a good long while. She makes for damn good storytelling.

Shortly after starting on Thor, I started collecting a rash of other new series, including several by Portland writers: Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (now finished and out in a collected volume), Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s subversively genius Bitch Planet, and the brilliant Prez, by my friend Mark Russell. DC has recently put the latter on hiatus, much to my displeasure (I want the rest of that story!), but fortunately, they’ve handed Mark The Flintstones, a satirical contemporary reboot of the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

20160807_170224I got the first issue of that from Mark himself, at a signing at Portland’s Cosmic Monkey; ever the satirist, he signed it, “This is where it all began to suck.” He means the dawn of civilization’s farce — the comic itself is amazing. He pulls exactly the right nostalgia-triggering images and references from the old cartoon while inserting wicked, sharp references to contemporary culture and politics (people doing paleolithic versions of selfies, soldiers suffering PTSD over the eradication of indigenous populations, hipsters sneering at popular art). And the framing device for the whole issue starts out hilarious and ends with the kind of laughter-echoing-into-somber-realization that is only possible in the best satire. I’m eager for what’s to come in this run, but better still, Mark says the long-term plan is to do a bunch of mini-arcs focused on different characters (like a Pebbles-centric storyline, a Barney-centric storyline, and so on), and he’s hinted in online comments that we might even see a visit from the Great Gazoo sometime down the line. I was already a fan of the Flintstones and of Mark Russell, but even setting those aside, gang, I am all in on this one.

Another Portland writer-turned-comics-writer I’ve picked up lately is Chelsea Cain. I first became aware of her novels several years back when I was moving into a Portland apartment building that caters to artists, writers, and musicians and I found her name on a list of former residents. Mostly a novelist, she did already have at least one comics connection in the form of her cameos — alongside fellow writers Monica Drake, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Suzy Vitello, and Diana Jordan — in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club 2 (they are all members of the same writing group, which is a part of the Fight Club sequel’s plot).

20160807_170202But Cain has recently picked up her own comics title, this one a superhero comic: Marvel’s Mockingbird. And it is fascinating! Back in the ’90s, I never did follow the Avengers or S.H.I.E.L.D. comics with the same devotion as I did the X-Men universe, so I’m playing catch-up on Barbara “Bobbi” Morse, but Cain has rebooted the character so well that I feel I don’t need much backstory — what gaps exist or references I need, Cain helpfully drops into the storyline with expert deftness. And backstory really works better with linear narrative, which this story is NOT. In fact, in a couple of excellent fourth-wall breaks in the title pages or frame narratives, Mockingbird (and sometimes even Cain herself) explains that the opening issues are part of an elaborate “puzzlebox” narrative, slipping in and out of episodes to drop clues about an underlying throughline narrative that will all get tied together somewhere down the road. I recently finished issue #5 and the drawstrings are only just beginning to pull tight. In the meantime, Cain treats us to an exquisite levity and freshness in superhero comics, with a lot of clever in-jokes, sight gags, and allusions, as well as some spot-on gender commentary, peppered into the story or the backgrounds. In an early issue, we see Howard the Duck (of all characters!) hanging out in a S.H.I.E.L.D. clinic waiting room, and the duck makes a more active appearance in the most recent issue; in another issue, Mockingbird rescues a male colleague and plays delightfully fast with all sorts of wry innuendo about his skimpy swimsuit as she fights her way through baddies to save the guy; in the most recent issue, we catch a glimpse of the Hulk sitting on a toilet, his shredded shorts around his ankles, which I’m sure is just a grabbed opportunity but then, I thought the same thing about Howard the Duck in the waiting room, and that cameo paid off later, so who knows. (I hope the Hulk isn’t suffering any digestive problems!)

But for all the fun Cain is having with these characters, the underlying narrative is as serious and human as you can get, and the quieter moments of the storyline are beautifully handled. I mostly picked up this series out of loyalty to the Portland writing scene and my friends who are in Cain’s writing group, but I have become a fast convert: this is a terrific series, and I’m eager to see where it goes.

20160807_170159I also picked up the new Black Panther series mostly out of loyalty to the author and curiosity about the new direction. To be honest, I haven’t read much by Ta-Nehisi Coates except a handful of short pieces here and there, but I did catch an interview with him on the radio shortly before the release of the new Black Panther, and I loved the things he was saying about comics, culture, literature, American society, responsibility, fear, identity . . . so I resolved then and there to pick up the first issue and see what happened.

The first issue was slow, vague, a bit too broad-stroke. But it had vision and hinted at direction, so I stuck with it. The third issue was, no kidding, one of the best and most inventive, more human stories I’ve ever seen in a mainstream superhero comic, up there with the best of the Logan (not Wolverine) stories, up there with best Batman stories, and in many ways up there in its own category of comics narratives. The fourth issue is carrying that forward, and the series is doing some astounding things with issues of authority, heredity, gender, religion, and politics. It’s one of the most adult, more literary comics I’ve seen, and the fact that it’s a mainstream Marvel superhero comic is amazing.

Best of all, I recently read the announcement that Marvel is going to be branching out from Black Panther and running an offshoot series on Wakandan history and culture, and who has Coates tapped to write that series? The one and only Roxane Gay, who not only is a literary badass and the PERFECT person to pen this new series (which will focus on new characters Ayo and Aneka, lovers and rebellious ex-members of Wakanda’s all-female security force, the Dora Milaje — and they are my favorite people in this new run of Black Panther), Gay also is the first (the first!?!?) black woman to head up a major comic title. And that’s huge news, and I am definitely keen to see that first issue when it hits shelves.


No author has ever struck a better superhero pose. (Photograph: Jennifer Silverberg for the Guardian)

Speaking of women in comics: I am surprised to find myself a new devotee of Spider-Gwen. I can’t remember why I first picked up the series — I think I’d read an article about Marvel’s monkeying around with reboots, alternate worlds, and variations within the Spiderverse — but wherever I heard about it, I found the first issue of Spider-Gwen last year and decided to give it a whirl. And it was uneven at first, though I did appreciate that the writer (Jason Latour — seriously, we need more women writing women in comics!) just jumped into the story without too much explanation and quickly built an alternate universe with a history and language all its own. But there were a few false starts, some loose ends from previous series and other alternate Spiderverses to tie off, and a couple of awkward, throw-away issues. But for some reason, the character of Gwen has remained appealing to me — she is every bit the same kind of Spider-hero that I loved in the old Peter Parker stories: the teen angst, the hero anxiety, and the trepidation, all matched weirdly and beautifully with the innate duty of heroism and the delightful cockiness of youth. If Peter Parker had never existed and this was the only Spider-hero the world had ever known, I’d still love Gwen Stacy the same way, and for the same reasons, as I loved Peter Parker.

20160807_171624Yet Latour is smart to play with all sorts of clever references to and twists on the existing Spider-narrative, so at every turn, we keep getting familiar touchpoints that are just offset enough to make us curious what will happen next. The death of Peter Parker instead of Gwen Stacy, the recurring neighborly advice from Ben Parker, the adversary of an unhinged and vengeful but still-badged cop Frank Castle, a vapid and fame-obsessed Mary Jane (oh, MJ, what have they done to you?), and, most recently, the appearance of Kraven the Hunter . . . . It all feels so strange and yet so right. Even in its off moments, I’m loving the overarching story, and Gwen Stacy is a more fascinating character than I would ever have guessed. I don’t know where Marvel plans to go with her, but for the time being, I’m glad she’s here, and I’ll keep reading her.

And finally, I need to talk about Paper Girls.

Yes, it’s written by another guy, Brian K. Vaughan. And while yes, Vaughan did some brilliant work with gender issues and feminism in his seminal Y: The Last Man (still among my all-time favorite series), he’s still a guy, and I still wonder why we aren’t paying women to tell these stories. (And I say that as a man whose own first novel focuses on two women and the struggles they face. I’m proud of my book; I still want to read those same stories told by women.)

20160807_170149But setting aside Vaughan’s gender, Paper Girls is a tremendous story. Maybe I say that because Cliff Chiang’s artwork and Matt Wilson’s colors are so stark and emotionally evocative. Or maybe I say that because the story — a time-travel adventure that begins in the mid-80s with girls who are the same age I was then, which means their adult selves in the 2016-set narrative threads are the same age I am now — appeals to my love of nostalgia. Or maybe it’s just because Vaughan is a genius for narrative arcs, character development, end-of-issue cliffhangers, deep-seated emotions, innuendo . . . .

Folks, I’m not exaggerating when I say that this might be one of the best comics series ever written.

I might be wrong about that. Who knows where this weird and convoluted emotional trip down memory lane into the ’80s is actually headed; who knows if Vaughan will actually be able to satisfactorily tie up all the threads he’s spun off into the wings of this story. But more than any comic book I’ve read in single-issue series, in the ’90s or now in the 20-teens, this is the story that sends me racing to the comic shop each month, asking, “Is it out yet? Is the new issue here?” And I’m convinced it will also reward rereading, once the run is finished and I can go back through every issue in a binge, piecing together the clues and the characters all at once.

It’s the kind of comic I wish I had written, and it’s the kind of comic I don’t think I could ever write. It is a stunning piece of work, and I love it to bits.



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

Last night I dreamed that I was having coffee at a window bar in a coffee shop when a person approached me hesitatingly and asked if I was a writer. I was wearing my Plot tshirt (an orange triangle representing Freytag’s Pyramid and the word “Plot”), and the person (who was genderless in my dream) said they were trying to be a writer too but weren’t sure about plot structure — they pointed to my shirt.

I invited them to sit on the stool next to me and I grabbed a napkin and started talking about how that pyramid isn’t the only way to tell a story. I drew a line on the napkin and talked about plot points and act structure from my old screenwriting class in grad school. I talked about Vonnegut’s shapes and the crayon-outline Vonnegut describes in the first chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five and how important it is to know where your characters are at any given point in the story. Then I looked up and realized several other people had gathered around. A long-haired teen who reminded me of myself just out of high school but sounded a bit like Lidia Yuknavitch said, “Isn’t all this just a load of crap, though? I thought we’d moved beyond plot. Lines and structure are for hacks and old-timers, man. To hell with all that! Just do your art!”

I had a weird moment of crisis in which I worried I’d become too rigid and formulaic in my work, and I stared at my napkin with all its shapes and intersecting lines. I turned it over to the clean side and stared at that. I started talking about organicism (that’s the word I used in my dream) and letting stories happen like life, about the importance of embracing the unpredictable.

But then I thought about the reading experience and how unsettling and irritating it sometimes feels to read stream-of-consciousness, about all the work involved in trying to keep up with a writer’s brain as words just spill onto the page. I made new lines amd shapes on the napkin, talked about how we ought to know as much as we can about our characters and our world and the broad-stroke events in our narratives so even when our stories surprise us, the surprises still make sense; I talked about how the best stories make the scripted feel unscripted and the organic feel organized. Then I woke up.

And now I want to get to work on my novels: now I want to get to know my characters and see where they take me; now I want to arrange my world so I can knock it all down and find the natural patterns in the disarray.

Now I want write.

My writing space

From time to time, I assign my students an essay about their writing spaces. I share other essays about other spaces, some fairly spot-on (like an older one by my friend Alexis M. Smith) and some a little more out there (like this one on silence and sacred spaces by Pico Iyer). And then I have them find their own writing space, wherever that is, and describe it.

I love these essays. Sometimes students go the traditional route and describe a desk in their bedroom or a corner of their kitchen table; sometimes they wander outdoors and describe a tree they like to sit under or a coffeeshop they frequent. Often, though, they confess that they had never really set aside a space for homework, let alone writing, and that they tend to just do the work wherever they have a little (relatively) free time and a (relatively) clear space.

And these are the some of my favorite essays, because in my workaday life, that is usually how I operate, too. Even when I have a designated desk, like my basement computer in our old duplex in Wisconsin or my little corner desk in our flat in Abu Dhabi, or even a whole study, as I did in our Portland townhome, I often found myself writing from the dining table or the living room couch, and most of the time I wasn’t even home — I would frequently write in my downtime at work or by dictation on my commute.

But now we have this new home, and I have a new study at the same time I have this new time to devote to writing — just writing — and I find myself consciously establishing a writing space in my new study, a place devoted to my new job of a working fiction writer.


The room has three bookshelves: One contains my writing and teaching texts, immediate story ideas and resources, writing magazines, and my bookselling bag with copies of Box Cutters, Hagridden, and the microfiction anthology I’m in.

Another contains all my religion and philosophy texts. The third contains some file boxes, binders full of more story ideas, and some decor like my father’s pipes, my grandfather’s ship captain’s bag, and my coffee mug from Sewanee.

In one corner, I’ve set up my meditation space, borrowing from the “time in the chair/time on the cushion” habit my friend Todd McNamee described when I interviewed him a few years ago. But in terms of my writing, the main action happens at my desk, which is between my printer and my bookshelf of writing texts and story ideas.


Because my desk is a secretary, I had a bad habit of stuffing things in it and just closing the lid on the clutter, but now that I’m working full-time from home, I’m determined to keep it at least clear enough to write regularly at the desk. But I’ve also never really bought into the “clean, well-lighted place” theory of writing; I’ve always been more fascinated by Ray Bradbury’s approach of keeping a menagerie of odds and ends on hand as inspiration for stories, and so I keep a collection of things on the hutch portion of my desk: a set of old die-cast cars and a small “I cry for you” onion trophy from my grad-school professor Dr. Russ Sparling, a giant Lego minifig ship captain (that is also a pen) my brother gave me, a talking Buddha that tells bad Buddhist jokes from friends of my parents, a small Optimus Prime figure, a writing Winnie-the-Pooh statue from my wife, a Lego minifig version of me and my custom minifig of the Rougarou from Hagridden . . . . Next to these are my smiley face clock and my Sewanee name badge, and on the bookshelf nearby is a cross-stitched “Carpe Noctem” my mother made me.

I have other ideas for ambience, too. The big one is my collection of author portraits: the same year I completed my master’s degree, my American short-story professor Dr. Russ Sparling was retiring, and in addition to the cars and onion trophy I mentioned above, he also bequeathed to me his collection of author portraits that he had clipped from magazines over the years and framed. They include a lot of classic heavy-hitters like Carson McCullers, Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner, and they had long hung in Dr. Sparling’s office, where I had long admired them. I was shocked — and honored — when he offered them to me, but I have never really had the right space to hang them up myself. I finally have that space, and I am eager to get them onto the walls!


I also hope to add a few portraits to these, favorites like Jane Austen and Cormac McCarthy, framed to match Dr. Sparling’s set. But we’ll see how much wall space I have.

I also have my framed “Rougarou” art print from a Portland artist and the Hagridden-themed photo collage my sister made me, and recently my uncle Brad gifted me a replica Civil War officer’s sword as a tribute to my novel. I’d like to hang those on the walls as well. Of course, I’m already running out of space, and I’ll have other memorabilia from other books I’ll be writing in the coming year, so I’ll have to be judicious in my decor — and besides, I’ll be in there writing, not decorating, so all that might have to wait anyway.

In the meantime, I have my writing space at last — a dedicated study, a comfortable chair and relatively clear desk surrounded my inspiration — and I am ready to sit down and get to work!

I am a writer

It’s been quiet here on the blog for a while, and there’s a reason for that: we’ve been moving. My wife has an amazing new faculty librarian job in Tacoma, Washington, so we’ve been spending the past couple of months transporting our lives and our minds a few hours north from our beloved Portland to this charming little city on the Puget Sound.

It also means that I’ll be taking a year off from the classroom to write full-time from our new home. It’s something I’ve done once before, back in 2010-2011, the period when I drafted Hagridden, finalized and/or published many of the stories that became Box Cutters, and put together the book-length story collection I’m shopping around now. So I’m looking forward to a similar period of creative output, with a forthcoming novella I need to finish revising, two novels trying to pushing through front of my skull and onto the page, and a few other projects rattling around behind them.

All of which means that, when we meet new neighbors or my wife’s new colleagues and they ask what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a writer.”

And that feels strange. But then, it’s felt strange for a long time.

See, I have a thing about labels. It took me years to feel comfortable claiming to be a vegetarian, so I kept explaining to people what I would or wouldn’t eat instead of just using the label. It took me years to feel comfortable telling people that I was a Buddhist, until the day I told Burmese Theraveda teacher Thynn Thynn that “I like to study Buddhism, but I’m not really a student of  Buddhism,” and she matter-of-factly replied, “If you study, you are a student.”

And I waited a LONG time before daring to call myself a writer in public, and even now, when I tell people I’m a writer, I often have to fight the urge to look around for the “real writer” who might out me as a fraud.

I revisit this “I’m a writer” thing from time to time, but I’ve been thinking about it especially for the past couple of months because right around the time this whole journey to a new town began and I realized I would be writing full-time again, I read an article in Poets & Writers called “Poet, Writer, Imposter: Learning to Believe in Myself,” by Leigh Stein.

Stein opens her article by expressing, in question form, a litany of self-doubts and, after the list, she explains that everyone who identifies with those doubts “may be suffering from imposter phenomenon, which is the name for those sneaky feelings of inadequacy, despite actual evidence of professional success.”

Later, she describes a commission she received to write an essay in response to an artist’s work, and while Stein initially agreed, she fell into a crippling pit of self-doubt as soon as she saw that the other two people the artist had approached were lit-famous:

I read their names and credentials [of those two other famous writers] over and over until I put myself into a sort of trancelike state of paralysis. I somehow forgot my identity as Published Poet and could only think of myself as Managing Editor of There Must Have Been Some Mistake.

That’s the label thing that I keep turning over in my head. Is it okay for me to claim to be a writer? Even after two books, even with two more books on the way and two novels waiting to get written, I’m not This Famous Author or That Prestigious Literato — so am I, in fact, a writer? Surely “There Must Have Been Some Mistake.”

Stein continues her article with a lengthy, excruciating, all-too-familiar narrative of procrastination and avoidance as she wrestles with whether or not she’s worthy of the assignment she’s been given, and this is where I fell completely into the article, because this is a habit I engage in far too regularly. Of course, I’ve always been a procrastinator in general, so maybe I simply use this kind of self-doubt and these feelings of inadequacy as excuses to procrastinate. But the emotions Stein writes about, and her strategies for nurturing those fears and doing more work than necessary both to avoid the real work of writing and to feel like she has earned the label of Writer, feel terribly familiar to me.

Later, the “Writer” label comes up again as Stein explains a four-stage model for how people perceive their own competence:

Stage one: unconscious incompetence, like writing poems effortlessly at thirteen because you read one book by Sylvia Plath and have no idea that there are any other books in the world. Stage two: conscious incompetence, that feeling of whoa when you’re learning to actually write and becoming aware of exactly how many other books there are in the world. Stage three: conscious competence, or the boldness to answer, “I’m a writer,” when anyone at a party asks, “So what do you do, exactly?” The final stage is unconscious competence, or the ability to easily perform a skill, without thinking as you’re doing it, perhaps even at the same time you’re working on another task.

Stein claims she would like to be at stage three but often exists at stage two. I actually have experienced stage four, but only when I’ve been working alone for protracted periods, like my “sabbatical” several years ago or the one I’m about to embark on: if I sit down and do the work long enough and, most importantly, I do the work out of the sight of others, I can fall into the writing and forget to be afraid of what others might think about it. (This is also one way that I use my procrastination to my advantage: if a deadline looms and I have too little time to worry about what others might think of the work, I break past the fear and just get the writing done.)

But it took me a long time to reach stage three, “the boldness to answer, ‘I’m a writer.'”

That’s where I am now, as I meet new people around our new home and have all these new opportunities to say aloud that I am a writer. Each time, it still takes me a moment to muster myself, to push past my longtime response of “I’m a teacher” and confess — yes, confess, because it feels like I’m getting away with something whenever I say it — that I spend my days at home, in my study, dreaming up stories.

At least now, when someone inevitably asks if I’ve published anything, I can point them to Box Cutters and Hagridden, and announce the forthcoming chapbook and the coming novella; when they ask what I’m working on, I can tell them about my two new novels. But when my study door is closed and I’m facing that blank screen, I still wonder if I’m using the right tense in my nominative — if I am in fact, a “Writer” instead of a “Have Written.”

Because sometimes I think I exist somewhere outside that four-stage competence scale, in some unnamed fifth stage where I know that I have written well, but I fear that I might never be able to write well again. Like somehow I just got lucky a few times, and any day now, the whole thing will come falling in on me.

I think in some respects this is related to the classic myth of writer’s block: as a novice, back in “stage two,” I might have stared at the blank page for ages worrying I’d never find the right words to fill it. But now, having written and published enough work to know that every new writing project is its own creature and you have to relearn all over again how to write each new work, I stare at that old blank page and worry I might have already found all the good words — that I have nothing left to say.

This is a stupid, self-indulgent sort of procrastination. I know it. But there it is anyway, waiting for me in my study whenever I sit down to a project.

I usually deal with this self-doubt by embracing it, by remembering Natalie Goldberg’s idea of the “beginner’s mind” (the original name of this blog, by the way). There’s also a cultural concept I read once about the Japanese, and I don’t know how true this is but it’s a good story: when, in middle age, Japanese people awaken in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep, they don’t lie there fretting and worrying over the sleep they’re losing, the work they aren’t getting done, the problems that woke them up in the first place. Instead, they realize that in their hectic workaday lives, they never get this kind of quiet, contemplative time, so they simply lie awake in the darkness and enjoy the gift of a little silent reflection. It’s a habit I’ve tried to embrace, and in some ways, I do the same with my fears of inadequacy as a writer: sometimes, when I have the luxury of time to slow down and do this, I will accept the idea that I do still have a lot to learn, and I start over at my “beginner’s mind” and learn anew how to do the thing I love doing.

In other words, while often I slip into this unnamed fifth stage, I try to trick myself into hopping back to stage two and enjoying the wonder and the “whoa” of learning new ways to write.

But enjoying stage two is easier when I could still claim to be a student, when I hadn’t tricked myself into thinking even for a little while that I’m a professional who ought to know better by now. And that’s what keeps me from embracing stage three — that’s why it feels so strange when I admit to people that I’m a writer.

This was where Stein’s article really drove home something for me, because toward the end, she sits down and talks with an expert in this stuff:

“We look to others to define who we are, [licensed clinical social worker and author Sherry] Amatenstein says. It’s reactive. [. . .] The whole process of writing is so fraught because unfortunately it is so much about what other people think.” For writers, professional value is so tied up in publication: If no one wants to publish that novel or poem you thought was so good when you wrote it, of course you feel stricken. “Artists are always waiting for the next rejection, or the next person to like them.”

I suppose when I tell people now that my day job is writing, it feels like some kind of oral “submission” and I am by habit expecting them to like me for what I do or reject the value my work. I never have this anxiety when I tell people that I am a teacher; I know the value of education and my role in fostering it. But storytelling still feels like something done around a campfire rather than for a living, and because the work itself can so often happen in isolation, without the immediate feedback from — and responsibility to — students or colleagues, it sometimes feels like no work at all.

But I am happy to say that the past few weeks, as I’ve been making this transition from the end of my previous term of teaching to the beginning of my new year of writing, I have been getting wonderful reactions. I met a woman at my dharma center a couple of weeks ago and told her I was a writer, and she cheerfully replied, “Oh, so am I!” and then we chatted about our craft for a while. (Turns out I had just met human rights activist and narrative nonfiction author Lisa J. Shannon. Cue my Stein-like panic in the presence of a terrific writer!) The other night, I met my Tacoma realtor’s husband and told him I am a writer; we wound up talking about Phillip K. Dick and graphic novels all night, and he left with a copy of Hagridden. Our new neighbors helped us unload our truck as we were moving into our new house, and when they asked what I do, I caught myself hedging my bets and declaring, “Well, right now I’m a writer,” as though this was just some temporary gig until I can get back to the “real” work of teaching. And in fact, it is temporary — I love the classroom and will be eager to return to it next year — but there I was, undermining my own self-worth as an artist. But one of my neighbors started talking about his background in theatre, his previous work as a producer and his desire to get back into stagework, and through him, I discovered a bit about the arts community in my new town.

In other words, I am learning all over again — with my newfound “beginner’s mind” — the tremendous value in my work as a writer, not just its personal value to me or its reciprocal value within the arts community but also its social value, its worth as art and entertainment. Sure, I am still defining that worth through the reactions of others, per Sherry Amatenstein in the Stein article. But I have become comfortable again with declaring myself a writer, and I am eager once more to go sit in the chair eight hours a day and do the work of writing — because I am, after all, a writer.

When “Enough!” is never enough

Whenever tragedy strikes America, mostly in the form of mass shootings, I have taken time out of my curriculum to foster a class discussion of the events. I have done this so regularly now that friends have started coming to me for advice about or to share their experiences with fostering such discussions in their own classes. Today, someone told me about a class conversation on this weekend’s Orlando shooting; my friend explained how the students were (as usual, and understandably) reluctant to speak out about how that tragedy made them feel, but then my friend made them write about their feelings, and the results were profound.

It reminded me that I had once done something similar with writing about a different mass shooting, and I had blogged about it. So I went to look up my old blog post and reread it.

And I noticed the date: February, 2008.

More than eight years ago.

And even then, my students and I were talking about how frightening it was that these things were happening with such increasing regularity, and how frighteningly blasé we were becoming about the horror we visit upon ourselves.

Eight years ago. And we’re still having — or refusing to have — EXACTLY the same conversation.

This is our complicity. This is our fault. This is our blood, in our streets and on our hands.

It is long, LONG past time for saying “Enough!” It has been enough for years and years. And we’ve known it, all this time.

I’m not going anywhere with this. I offer no insights, no calls to action. You know the insights. You know the actions. We have spoken out, we have demanded action, we have acted ourselves, and we will continue to do so.

But in the meantime, look at us. Look at who we are. Look at who we’ve become comfortable being.

How I didn’t become a writer, and how I did

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 10.34.32 AMAuthor Gay Degani is running a series on her Words in Place website called “Journey to Planet Write,” where writers describe their path toward their literary careers.

A while back, Gay invited me to participate, which was thrilling! But as I began drafting my literary origins, I kept coming back to the stories I told myself about how I should have become a writer, how I kept imagining the path I wanted to be on and the milestones I was supposed to reach. And how in college I met a twelve-year-old with a better “origin story” than I had.

So I started there, with my literary fantasies and failures, and wrote about how I finally let go of those ideals, and how I’m still in the process of becoming of writer.

Head over to Words in Place and check out my essay, “Why I Felt Jealous of a Twelve-Year-Old,” and then hit the archives for more writers’ journeys and origin stories!