Monthly Archive: March 2014

It’s a Purple Cow, and I’m a self-published author

A friend of mine once got a tattoo. She’s a Taurus, and the tattoo was of a bull. She picked it off the wall of the studio, and adjusted the coloring. Within ten minutes of getting it, someone asked: “Why did you get a tattoo of a purple cow?” She pointed out that it’s obviously a bull. Look at the horns! Look at the septum! It was pointless; it became the question she’d field again and again, until she gave up and started saying, “It’s a purple cow.”

I think of this when people ask where I’ve published. I used to say, “I’m independently published!” By this, I hoped to summon the literary equivalent of Ani DiFranco: I didn’t go with a label, I made my own! I’m not Suzanne Vega! All I need is a wicked debut and the next thing you know, stadium shows!

It didn’t take long to note that no one thought about stadium shows. They thought I was talking about a tiny press at a college. A trendy start-up with a typewriter logo. The side project of a major literary magazine. Most publishers of this kind don’t launch the endeavor with their own novel.

Now I say, “I self published.” Then I sit back and wait for what I was trying to avoid: the smug expression of someone with a limited edition chapbook at a tiny publisher, four minutes from being out of print, who is finally fulfilling her self-righteous dreams. Better? Good.

Or maybe I wait for the bookstore to confess the “special section” already has a lot of titles. Or for a professor to say, “you’re not really published then?” Or for a fellow author to say, “did you try to get published first?” even if the entire first part of the conversation was about a publisher’s lack of marketing support and their unwillingness to publish the book’s sequel.

Then: “So…why did you decide to go that route?”

Well, because I’m a woman. When James Joyce writes a long, complicated but well-crafted sentence, he’s fashioned a genius. If I write a long one, I’m accused of making my readers work too hard. If Cormac McCarthy writes a short, gruff exclamation, it’s poetry. If I do, what kind of emotion are you trying to communicate here? If I write a personal essay, I’m asked to make it a memoir. If I like a black cover, I’m asked if there can be a fish on it, or a girl with her foot in the water, or maybe a sunset, a pair of sunglasses, a bonnet. Almost every female book cover looks like a douche commercial. If I write on dark subject matter, there’s questions of who my audience might be, and whether the book would even sell. And that’s the keyword: sell.  Those doing something dangerous and innovative who get book deals (and happen to be women) really hit the lottery. Anne Carson clearly has naked pictures of everyone. I would like to send her mine. Or they’re writing about sex, which is the only acceptable form of feminism. Equal pay? You’re so second wave. Lean in, or something.

Two options: write differently to sell, or write the book you want to write, and accept the fact that maybe no one will read it, maybe no one will buy it, maybe no one can even find it — maybe it’s just the book you write.

Terror. If the story is just for you, then why would you even write it down? Writing is about communication, to present ideas and pictures and dialog that another will receive. Writing without response is the literary equivalent of the tree falling in the woods riddle.

And this is followed by: should I trust myself to know what is best about my writing? Sure, I’ve experienced dozens of writing workshops and excellent mentors, I’ve got a BA and an MFA, I’ve learned tricks and techniques and tools, I’ve buffed and polished myself into confusion and insanity and back around to hilarious. Really? Should I trust myself? Now?

In moments like this, the only question that can get me to stand at my desk and start working is: What would Virginia Woolf do?

This is an easy answer. She’d write her book. She’d agonize over it. And stick her foot in her mouth ten times in between.

This is still what I do. And just like her, I find myself repeatedly adjusting and pacing as my life changes and I learn new things, so it’s so very hard to call a book done without calling the same curse from yourself.

The downside: when you write the book you want, and no one reads it, it might be more devastating than writing the book you kinda didn’t want to write and don’t care if anyone reads.

I wrote the book I wanted, with the cover I wanted, and the quotes I wanted on the back. It took twice as long as I’d anticipated, because blood was squeezed from every word. There was no editor to herd me away from the book and urge an obsessive hobby that resulted in winter wear. There was no fact checker to consult with scholars about a village of immigrants in 1960s Cleveland. To this day I have the privilege of saying that the end result is exactly what I envisioned, and I compromised nothing. This is an achievement. This is joy.

No one would review it; most newspapers even have policies against self-published books. The accolades I earned came exclusively from online sources kind enough to note their reactions on Amazon or Goodreads or Powell’s. Bookstores that sold out of copies didn’t restock it, and offered no reason as to why. Others were left saddled with a stack of something no one wanted, and had to ask me to retrieve them and quietly slink away. The neglect I fretted about receiving from publishers was now arriving from other outlets, and it had nothing to do with gender, and everything to do with an inability to network and a deficiency of cash to pay someone to do it for me. After a year of being on some shelves but not enough, I was backing myself into my own bitter corner of self-published self-loathing, and lowering the gate with a dose of depressed laziness.

I got back on the purple cow after talking to my niece, Rayne, about writing. She’s doing a lot of the same things I did when I was 9, like filling one journal after the other, and writing a book series with character traits from different books put together like Mr. Potato Head. She’s got a leg up on me thanks to her illustration prowess, and every time I return to Cleveland she’s got another something finished to show off. When I talked to her about writing, she said, “I want to be a writer like you.” And my response was, “You ARE a writer.” I didn’t want her to think she had to wait for some secret initiation. It’s not something that’s granted through degrees or contracts or book sales. It’s something that’s announced by writing.

Oh yeah.

This reminder doesn’t fully resolve the stall. Self-publishing requires business savvy and social skills, two areas in which I’m woefully deficient. On a good day I can make it all the way to the end of a conversation without bringing up the special deformities of a little known disease, or starting a telephone slideshow of cat pictures. An ill-timed question about my book returns a stunned expression that suggests I’ve never considered what it’s actually about. It’s a miracle if I can twist this gobbledee goo down to something resulting in monetary exchange. I’m more manic than pixie and only dream girl if someone wakes up screaming, but I’m not sure you can buy a book in the middle of all that racket. Still, I should have cards to hand people or something.

The same holds true if I ever want to tangle with the publishing world that is the PUBLISHING WORLD, and hope for a contract that isn’t adjusted for self-esteem deficiency and impatience when working with lawyers. These are skills. They are learned, and I wish I could just buy them.

See above, about the shortage of cash. 

 

The Discomfort Zone: Metal Machine Music, March Music Moderne IV

A while back I was contacted by Bob Priest, guru of Portland’s annual March Music Moderne Festival. Turns out he’s a fan of Psychopomp Volume One, and was wondering if I was interested in participating in the fest. His idea was to have me pen something of an introduction for a night dedicated to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, and afterwards the album would be played in its entirety while Butoh dancers performed.

Then on February 11th, my father died. This fully altered my understanding of this album, which has always sounded like a car crash happening between my ears. Afterwards it articulated the calamity of death, each abandoned bone falling down to the bottom of a well and smashing, leaving memories and rumors and ideas. It resembled the absurdity of selecting urns and speaking to lawyers and cleaning apartments, in between thoughts of actual grieving, and sharing conversation with others who knew him in different ways.

On March 8th, this is what I read to kick things off. It’s called “Ostrich”. Much thanks to Bob Priest for putting together such a strange/wonderful evening at Three Friends Coffee.

*

Self-destruction and innovation sound the same.

Metal Machine Music: the lucky moment in Lou Reed’s life when he reduced Rolling Stone’s editors to red-faced rattle throwing toddlers screaming “I hate you!” tiny fists beating the air to spare the walls. It’s a headache hatched on vinyl. Some fans thought it was a mistake and traded it in for aspirin.

Lou Reed confessed to being really stoned, to listing instruments he didn’t use in the liner notes, but insisted the roast before the recipe was the finest cut of lamb. He declared it his 1975 effort to produce a novel in music form, even if it was an angry entity most would rather exorcize than read or listen to. It howls at my coyote ever hunting for the chance to laugh first and loudest about an Emperor’s missing clothes.

And yet.

Metal Machine Music’s second egg cracked into my ear in an airport on an airplane as I waited on the tarmac to head up and east towards Cleveland. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. They don’t change at all on the tarmac.

An interrupted dream called me back to the burning river. In the dream I met my father on a bridge, where he stood waiting with his camera, anticipating the perfect shot. After a moment or two I told him I was going back the way I came. He said that he would wait for the sunset. The question I never got to ask was split open by a ringing phone, and it was my sister, and my father was dead.

And there was Lou Reed placing a hood of his hated album over my head, whispering, “These are words for a limitless language.”

The flight attendant asked that I put up and stow all my portable electronic devices. I did, and Metal Machine Music kept going.

My father stamped his death shadow into a chair carried up the stairs by his best friend of forty years, who ignored my father’s insistence that this wasn’t a project for a man with a heart condition. Two months ago my father resuscitated his best friend after that heart attacked him, and in that moment my father must have known his own vessel was sinking. They were both 64, but my father was older. He went out as an armchair Viking, his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense. His best friend climbed the stairs again to find him.

Descending from 30,000 feet, wheels lowered, warnings about electronics for the second time. Metal Machine Music squeals like birds released from a flaming cage.

The first thing I did right off the plane was identify his body. It was in a cardboard box against a north-facing wall. He was thinner than I expected, his skin cold, and blue trails bloomed across his forehead, maps marking his exit. I remembered that the last time I saw him I thought he didn’t have long to live, but that didn’t make me write him more. He never wrote if I didn’t.

It was in an archive of those emails that I found a song that he wrote to play at the end of his funeral. The beginning of the funeral was reserved for taps, a pre-recorded mourning played as a naval officer in crisp blues mimed blowing a bugle. All I heard was ohms and crackles, another slapped amp for every ceremonial turn of the flag.

I’ve never been one to fold in predictable places. I spread all over the room. I talked to the plastic surgery scars of my father’s forgotten acquaintances, the facial hair of my sister’s high school friends, the cleavage of the woman delivering the service, the nostrils of the funeral director who couldn’t figure out mp3s. All that left my mouth was static. In the air, the scene and sky change every hundred miles. My father’s not in the air at all. He’s bottled.

My head is in the sand.

His ashes were heavier than I thought they would be, in a giant urn called a shaker with the image of a sunset sculpting it. He went from cardboard box to Parmesan cheese canister. There’s a reason cremation so often ends with comedy gold. We decided to spread his ashes later, because of snow blanketing his preferred parks and Lake Erie being frozen and none of us having any better ideas. Instead we talked about snow and cold and the impossibility of making angels with either ingredient.

In the final section of Metal Machine Music, amps challenge guitars to play themselves for a locked 1.8 seconds. I metronomed the loop and told anyone listening that I didn’t know when it would end.

There’s nothing to do after a funeral, except measure your own time beyond 64 minutes and tabulate what’s been wasted. So my sister tuned my father’s old guitars and ghost hands fielded strings. So I rode the pulse of 1.8 seconds of feedback all the way to a train station to launch my own Excursion on a Wobbly Rail, hoping for peace delivered by rear window.

I took my father’s camera, and waited for sunset.

Metal Machine Music is lava: destructive and fast, forging a fertile path for those who choose to climb or burn instead of run. Critics that couldn’t plot it and fans that found nothing to sing along to and strange sorts looking for something to slap them etched obscurity in stone. It was re-released a few years ago to delight and confound all over again, pasting a caveman painting on a glossy magazine legacy. Lou ostrich-tuned his outro.

Lou Reed’s musician hands conducted him away with the water-flowing 21 form of Tai Chi, the poetry of Laurie Anderson carefully framing his open-eyed exit in autumn leaves. My father’s musician hands placed his last cigarette in the ashtray beside him, and it burned right on down to nothing as he took his final breath in its incense.

*

There are still many events going on with the Festival, so check the link above for full schedule information! Thanks to Kugot Butoh for destroying everyone’s comfort zone. We totally needed it. Not only was the dancing itself a mind bender, but the facial expressions of the many folks having their first exposure to such emotionally potent and difficult dancing functioned as physical confirmation of its efficacy. Here’s to more folks facing their discomfort zone in the future.

 

 

Amtrek, Part 1

The Portland resident in me is better off in motion away from Portland during the dreary and too long winter months where nothing happens: not between my ears, and not anywhere else. Netflix feels like a relationship that’s a constant source of disappointment, and baristas feel like personal friends unable to escape my grim confession.

Weeks ago when my partner and I first discussed the idea of escape by rail, the plan was to take Amtrak from PDX to LAX and back, nodding off into mountain sunsets and waking up to redwoods. We ended up flying in. The week before our scheduled departure I made an unexpected detour to Cleveland, where my sisters and I were occupied with practical, terrible things like attending my father’s funeral.

Assuming half-orphan status isn’t something I’d recommend, regardless of whether childhood stories recall Harry Potter’s cupboard or Beaver Cleaver. In the aftermath of all the death events I was left glaring at my reflection like Ed Norton in every movie, wondering why I couldn’t be one of those collapsible people who inflates and deflates at the right occasions and is easily stored when not of use. Stupid flesh and bones. Why couldn’t I be a bouncy castle?

My nieces Rayne and Simone thought I should perhaps consider the strange fate of a banana marooned in a poisoned pumpkin patch instead of brooding so much. Clever girls.

After I returned we went south to Ventura, CA for my partner’s grandfather’s 90th birthday party. I never had the chance to meet either of my grandfathers, as the men on both sides of my family often choose professions and habits the inform early death. I didn’t want to lose the chance to meet my version of a unicorn. California taught me that everything such unicorns say is amazing, as is a steady influx of naturally produced vitamin D absorbed through head and hands. It’s also impractical to stay in a jacuzzi forever, tempting though it may be.

The return: 27 hours on Amtrak, Oxnard to PDX. An unexpected price spike in the tickets after the website went down (then back up again) = bitter grumbling, particularly since it was only our selected date that reflected the increase. Attempts to contact Amtrak by phone were a fail, as was attempting to contact them by email. Note to future travelers: you cannot contact Amtrak unless you go down to a station in person.

Still, last minute train tickets are cheaper than last minute airfare. Oxnard Train Station was irritability balm, with its comfortable classic train station aesthetic, grand wooden benches recalling church pews. People were mellow. One of the things that distinguishes train travel from air is the absence of an interior pelvic ultrasound prior to boarding. With trains you check in, get on, put your bag in the communal storage area, trust your fellow passengers, go to your assigned seat and stay there until a man in a funny outfit comes by to give the ticket an official scan. Then you get up and take several wobbly steps and apologies to the observation car, where travelers sit armed with awful and amazing stories begging for participation or ears. You might even play cards.

The outside waiting zone invited us to get in touch with our inner cattle, and likely informed a mini stampede when the train rolled in twenty minutes late to collect our bodies and bags and head northward.

Oxnard Train Station Hogwarts Invisible Entrance

Every observation car is loaded with interesting human specimens, and no one is going to convince me otherwise. I’ve never ridden a train and found myself bored by my fellow passengers, and the longer the trip the greater the likelihood of it evolving into a Breakfast Club edition of group therapy. The scene: to my right, an Arabic woman seated across from a soldier. They’re playing cards. They exchange a few awkward sentences about politics. She’s trying to be careful; he’s 21 years old and already convinced. The first smoke break allows him to locate another uniformed sort to trade fart jokes and tattoo ideas with. I’m relieved to return to my regularly scheduled stereotype; she’s already decided to move elsewhere in observation anyway.

Later the soldier talks to my partner about Americans being especially nervous about bombs, his Bud Lite breath hitting my neck, and I can only assume this is because he’s never been overseas or watched the news. Then I consider that he’s in a position where his own relationship with bombs and fear is about to be tested, and this is coping, so I say nothing and dodge living up to a stereotype all my own.

view from the observation car. Insert happy sigh.

There’s also a pair of newlyweds, still careful in the way they touch and smile at each other, having circular conversations about the past and future. As the day winds into evening she slowly divulges details about a stint in prison to the room. Meanwhile, a chick with a moleskine notebook and laptop much like my own operates with the same spy-and-tally gaze that leaves me wondering what she’s recording about my own disastrous presentation. I’m holding myself together with socks and scarves, and she could be on to me. She falls into conversation with a tattoo artist on his way to a convention, and I’m distant and distracted.

A camera I claimed from my father’s abandoned objects is capturing images out the window, and in each instance the lens steals something from the scenery and something of the train. I spend a second wondering if my camera is ghost locked.

Not bored, drinking in the California Coast
Scene from California’s coast
Farmland, desert dry

The memory card came preloaded with pictures detailing all of Cleveland Metroparks’ fauna. He mentioned in an email that animals were practically crawling into his lap of late, and now that I’m familiar with the zoom capabilities (and limitations) of this particular Nikon I can measure the accuracy of that statement. Many of the photos are gorgeous, intimate portraits revealing subtle coloring and patterns pressed into natural adornments. The only pictures that appear awkward are the ones of people, which is an honest reflection of someone who struggled in the company of others — an issue I experience in my own way as I adjust to sharing a train for 27 hours with strangers.

At each stop up the California coast people get on and off. Santa Barbara, San Luis Obespo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville. After my third “I thought there was supposed to be wireless on this train?” conversation with an angry mouse clicking guy in a tie, it becomes clear that those searching for a signal will never, ever stop, and will simply load and reload their browsers, ever more desperate to log in to something for affirmation of ongoing technical existence.

Can’t download music software = butthurt.

When all else fails, and even when it doesn’t, there is the bar car.

It takes no time at all for the lower level to light up like a bowling alley. Imagine a pod of shitfaced men in jeans and women in tube tops and too much hairspray somewhere between fist fight and free hugs, en route to a Poison concert. It’s that awesome. If you’re suffering a flirtation deficiency, a casual stroll down to this level will likely rectify the situation, and fear of being ejected from a moving rail inspires a degree of respect. If I were four notches less exhausted I’d join them in their loud binge-fired confessions, but I’m not ready to release my truth. And sometime in the next three hours they’re either going to be crying into their coat sleeves or trading blows during the next smoke stop over which branch of the military is superior, regardless of whether or not any of them actually served. I can’t believe I’m going to miss it. I won’t miss the sunset.

As meals are distributed to those who opened their wallets, sighed, and surrendered, it occurs to me that there’s no entitlement on the train, just a lot of laughter about what it might be like to travel in a car that allows for wine and cheese  before the evening meal. There’s debate about whether to call this first class or sleeping cars, or just perceive it as a safety net that ensures our leg of the train won’t be the one robbed first. This is also radically unlike a plane, where after being frisked and fondled by a security force paid to be overzealous about things like lotion bottles and fingernail clippers you damn well better get your free plastic cup of cranberry juice. Every announcement is met with laughter or cheers, and reminders regarding the prevalence of booze in tiny bottles that we’ll later stuff ourselves back into, just to smell something different. The faithful attendant of this slobbering bunch takes occasional meal breaks, to the nail biting chagrin of his new best friends, and I join the league of fanboys and girls when he promises me that when I come down for my third coffee refill it will be free.

War of the Worlds Sunset. California lasts almost as long as Kansas.

After sunset offers a fog heavy alien landscape, I abandon my observation station and collapse into my assigned seat, welcoming the dawn of a murderous rage that makes me understand what a complex housing situation prison must be. First, a couple propping up their sleep with a Spanish horror movie, live and without headphones at 3AM. Absence of English would make even my most bitch face comment useless, and I’m trying hard not to be the token temper tantrum. I am a bouncy castle. I am a bouncy castle. This sound is chased by my very own partner’s decision to go mining in a snack bag for the loudest bag of cheetos ever produced by Trader Joe’s. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE, chomp chomp chomp, screams and pleas for mercy in Spanish. Then, the negotiation of various cords and wires to ensure that every electronic gadget is sufficiently charged, should the non existent wireless connection suddenly surface and threaten all of the coach passengers with a whisper of first world mopey civilization. CRINKLE CRINKLE CRINKLE. Snap. I ask him to chill out with the cheetos and he shakes the bag in my face, and I realize we’re both train crazy.

The mood sinks further when we brush city limits and phones materialize out of no where for rapid facebook examination, and I’m still thinking about the fact that my father died and my best bet for communicating to as many distracted sorts as possible the insanity that immediately follows is a thoughtful status update that summons clicking of the “like” button. It’s not that the world is a terrible place, or that we are flanked by terrible people. It’s that we’ve gotten lazy, and don’t know how to talk anymore. I don’t know how to talk anymore. I need to work on this.

I pacify all of this this by relocating to the seat closest to exit.

When dawn hits I drag myself up in enough time to witness this:

Good morning, Mt. Shasta!

Oh, and also this:

Gasp!

This is what I took the train for. It’s the ultimate road trip without the pressures of changing lanes and keeping eyes on the road. Early morning fog creates an eerie entryway to the mountain, and it assumes the shape of hobbit homes.

Near Klamath Falls we pick up a couple of tour guides and I pick up the promised cup of coffee. The super power of this duo is announcing things they consider photograph worthy too early or too late, but overall their presence is pretty adorable.

Mount McLoughlin
Hello, Oregon

Somewhere around Eugene my brain came alive again with daydreams of home, and I thought about what it would be like to do this again when the days are longer and you can swallow every drop of sun and scenery from LA to PDX.

Not tired. Nope.

A woman with a collection of O magazines attempts to hater-bond with me when she notices me taking a photograph of a graffiti artist in action and suggests that I get an upclose shot of his face. From there she transitions to a discussion of Shirley Jackson inspired by the book on my table, questioning whether kids today can grasp the message. I confess that I’m fairly certain that anyone who can digest an episode of True Detective or Breaking Bad can perform the simple linguistic mathematics required to grok “The Lottery” and then I want to wish her away. I’m not up to being cynical and hater bonding anymore. It’s too much work to buzz kill every conversation with a dark eyeroll. I’m trying to be a bouncy castle here.

I’m afraid to be back at home. I don’t know what will swim up and slap me, and I haven’t even chronicled every awful notion of a visit such as this. It’s like I’m there, waiting for myself, demanding inspecting and isolation and a transition from another winter wrapped in Netflix and little else. Anywhere else I could be a new me that’s far less predictable, that lays  new tracks for trains headed to abandoned stations to collect ghosts and all their ornaments.

They’re around me all the time anyway. Might as well assist them with travel.