Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

A week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

Mortgages Are For Masochists

Dogpoet/Michael McAllister MFA Columbia Graduation Imperial Margarine GownYou ever get that whiny voice in the back of your head that says, “Boy, it sure would be nice if life only gave me one, maybe two things tops to deal with at a time?” Apparently life doesn’t work that way!

I know. I’m still processing this, too.

Also: IF YOU ARE A WRITER CONSIDER THE BENEFITS OF RENTING!

Three jobs and an arson are nothing compared to the mortgage approval process. If you recently took time off to go to grad school, work on a book, or engage in nontraditional forms of employment, prepare yourself for weeks and maybe months of financial proctology.

Dig out your bank, credit card, IRA, and 401k statements (yes, Dad, I really have a 401k). Scan and email your tax returns. Check your credit score and try not to give in to despair. Write three-page emails trying to explain the six or seven w-2 and 1099 forms from 2010.  Keep your cool when they say, “Um, that was really confusing.”

Stay near the phone and field each day’s new request. For example, “Can you give us the contact info for the two years of employment before you had this really weird urge for an Ivy League education? Actually,  make that three.”

Also: “Can you get us a copy of your degree from Columbia?”

“How humiliating,” Joe said when I told him.

“Someday,” I said, “I will look back on all of this and not throw up.”

“Even better,” he said. “You finally got to put that MFA to use.”

How to Write a Book

Mule Dogpoet Michael McAllisterOr One Guy’s Seven-Year Journey as a Mule

I was recently asked to speak to a writing class about my book, which gave me the chance to reflect on what’s worked for me, and since I sometimes get emails asking for general advice, I thought it might be useful to share a little of my experience. I’m entirely aware that by posting this, having finished only 97% of the book, I am seriously tempting fate and derision. But this will fuel me through the last 3%. Pride’s a useful motivator.

Fill the Well
I spend a lot of time on the Internet, for work and for not-work, clicking from one shiny object to the next, and I invariably walk away from the computer feeling dazed and stupid. I can think of maybe a handful of movies that fuel me creatively. Often, the theater. The last season of Breaking Bad. But nothing fuels me like reading, and by reading I mean books. Sometimes all it takes is a page or two to fill me with the courage to return to my own imperfect, unfinished story. Do more of whatever fills your well and less of everything else. Guard the well from celebrity gossip sites, shiny objects, and Facebook barbarians.

No, Really
Another plug for books but from a crankier angle. Expecting people to read your writing when you can’t be bothered to read other people’s books is just plain rude. Read a lot, of everything. Otherwise you’ll go years operating under the delusion that everything you write is brilliant and original and destined to be turned into a four-film franchise starring Daniel Radcliffe and Meryl Streep.

Your Muse is a Flake
Waiting around for inspiration will never get you to the end of your book. Some of my best writing came only after I forced myself to sit at the computer and endure for an hour the thick, fuzzy-headed despair of having nothing in the world to say.

Don’t Wait for the Shack
I once read an interview with a well-known writer who leaves his house every morning, walks a hundred yards to a little redwood shack on the far corner of his wooded property, and spends the next eight hours undisturbed, writing and sipping tea from his lucky mug while the occasional acorn falls on the roof overhead. Oh, how I want that shack. I have no shack. I’ve been working on this book for seven years. For one year, when I had more money, I rented a private office. But I also wrote at home, in bed, at my desk, and on the couch. I wrote on my husband’s couch, on a chair passed down from his grandfather, and in the basement of his shop. I wrote in a tiny Manhattan apartment with a view of an airshaft. I wrote in three different rooms at the Columbia University library and a public library at the Jersey Shore. I wrote at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, Jumpin’ Java, Cafe Flore, and a dozen other coffee shops. I wrote on airplanes and in two different borrowed houses in Palm Springs. I wrote at every job I’ve ever had. You may have a fantasy shack, too, somewhere in your future, but what are you going to do in the meantime?

Your Portable Pal
Carry a little notebook, or your iPhone, a place to scrawl the words, ideas, and sentences that you’ll otherwise forget. No, you won’t remember.

Swallow Your Pride
I was a coward in college, afraid to commit myself to literature, and I chose instead the wildly practical major of sociology. I spent the next ten years feeling insecure about my education, and still it wasn’t until I got into Columbia’s MFA program that I began to see just how little I knew. Workshops and peer feedback can be valuable, but having someone take me through 100 books, page by page, sometimes sentence by sentence, and show me how each writer put together a story, was the single best thing I’ve done for myself as a writer. You don’t need to commit yourself to a Master’s degree. Take an extension class. Download a lecture from Yale. There’s no shame in being taught, and those who tell you otherwise are idiots.

Join a Cabal
The greatest unexpected benefit to grad school was the little group of writers from my program who landed here in the Bay Area after graduation, a group I still meet with every month, over five years later. We started out as a book club (first selection: Madame Bovary), but then one day my husband referred to the group as “your little cabal,” and it stuck. We exchange work, gossip, job leads, literary agent horror stories, and the occasional awesome news of a book deal. We also talk about Downton Abbey, Battlestar Galactica, and eat a lot of Salt and Pepper Kettle chips with french onion dip. They danced at my wedding, and I’d be lost without them. Again, you don’t need an MFA program for this. Find writers through workshops, local lit organizations, or Craigslist.

Be Accountable
Writing is a pain in the ass. The beautiful story you imagine in your head, by the time you get it on the page, is a pale monstrosity. You will want to do anything in the world but the thing you most need to do. You will wash the dishes. You will vacuum every room in your house. You will cut your toenails and then vacuum some more. Unless you are in school or are an incredibly important author with a publishing house editor waiting for your next chapter with bated breath, you’ll need to create your own deadlines. Form a cabal. Find one friend. Exchange work.

Be an Ass
Despite what the world thinks, talent only takes you so far. Only the mule-headed endure.

Everybody Hurts
I did research in the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books division of the New York Public Library, where I went through old correspondence files from The New Yorker, and learned that the magazine rejected every single famous writer you could think of many, many times. It doesn’t matter who you are. You will be rejected. Be a mule.

Let It Brew
I have a friend, a well-respected author with three novels under his belt, who hates revision. He works by slowly moving forward, perfecting each sentence as he goes along. I can’t work that way. My first drafts are hideous. I don’t know what I think or how I feel about something until I start writing about it, and even then it takes time, sometimes a few weeks, or months, or years, till I get at the truest insight possible. I have to let each chapter sit, like a tea bag in a cup of hot water, letting it steep, stirring it around seventeen or eighteen times, doctoring it with milk and low-calorie sweetener, or, fine, yes, actual real sugar if it’s the only thing in the house, till it’s right.

It Matters
I routinely forget to follow my own suggestions, but eventually I remember. If you’re plugged into contemporary culture (and what 21st Century writer isn’t?), you will frequently fall into black despair over the future of books. Our fragmenting attention spans. The publishing industry death spiral. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

But listen. Writing still matters. To a lot of people. There will always be readers who want to get lost in a story, learn about other places, or step inside the skin of a total stranger. Readers willing to have their minds changed and their hearts broken. Readers quietly thrilled by beautiful language. Readers who find, within the pages of a book, a voice that articulates the things they’ve always felt but could never express. Readers who feel, at the end of a book, less alone in their fears and mistakes. I can’t list all the reasons why people read books, or why literature is important, because there’s too many of them, and most of the fun is figuring out, book by book, your own reasons. Why you need to read, and why you need to write.

Proud Ballad of a Bench Warmer

So about two days after posting all about My Triumphs in D League Gay Softball, I hit a slump. At our last game of the regular season I struck out twice and eked out a couple of anemic singles. At our next practice, one of only two before play-offs, I swung and hit only air, and let more than a few grounders bounce past me on the manicured grass of the lonesome right field.

It was more than a little humiliating. Understandable, yes: common, no doubt. But still humiliating. The next morning I woke light-headed and thunder-pulsed, a dizzy sensation that would cling to me for the next seven days. My dreamy doctor prescribed an echocardiogram and then ran off to Bear Week in Provincetown. I holed up, ate massive plates of pasta for the first time in months, wrote nothing, and watched reruns of Veronica Mars, missing the final practice before play-offs.

I woke the first morning of play-offs still light-headed and quick-pulsed, but determined to at least show up for moral support. The winner of the play-offs would qualify for the Gay World Series in glamorous Columbus, Ohio. But our team had finished the season fifth out of seven teams. To win playoffs we’d have to win six out of seven games over the next two days, a doubtful proposition.

Our first game was against a team we’d been 0 for 2 against during the season, so I figured I’d rest my dizzy head while warming the bench, shouting out the occasional Inferno cheer and offering my condolences afterwards.

Yeah, right. We fucking won.

And watching that felt so good that I played the next three games, poorly again, though the rest of my team did well enough that we won two of them. We still had a shot the next day. The adrenaline seemed to knock the dizziness from my head, and I went home that night feeling pretty damn good.

I came back the next morning, the Manly Fireplug in tow, just as dizzy as before. Worse, in the intervening night I’d had a Mildly Traumatic Event. I need to stay vague about this Mildly Traumatic Event for various reasons, so my apologies to you for kinda sorta leading you on.

I say mildly because no one was killed. I was not hurt. The Manly Fireplug was not hurt. No family or friends or little red terrier were hurt. But the memory of the event clung to me over the night and through the next day, the second day of play-offs. And between the memory of the event and the return of my dizziness, I was one bummed dude. I was sick and scared and stuck in my head, and I did the one thing I’d never done, all season long.

I gave up.

I told the coach the dizziness was back, keeping the other details to myself, and spent the rest of the day avoiding her eye. I hung back.

And watched my team win the whole fucking thing.

Yep, we won the next three games, the last two in a row against the top-seeded team, and we routed them.

It was thrilling. It was heartening in a way I can hardly describe. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve ever had with another group of people, and I’m so glad that I was there.

The thrill, of course, was tempered, for all the reasons you might expect. I had wanted so badly to take part, to pull my weight and help my team reach that unlikely victory. But I couldn’t do it. I went home that night with a complicated heart.

The dizziness cleared. My dreamy doctor is still, as I write this, at Bear Week, and I have yet to learn the results of my test, but my symptoms have cleared up, and yesterday I drove down to the batting cages and swung until the sweat flew from my arms.

And next month I will travel with my team to Coumbus where no doubt I will spend most of the week warming a bench or two, something I will be happy to do, cheering on my team.

Thank you, D league softball, for giving me a little more confidence, even if I sometimes lose track of it. And thank you Inferno, my team, my comrades, you unlikely band of rag-tag misfits, for proving that you can still come from behind and kick some major ass. Flame on!

Since then I’ve stayed stuck in my head. Sometimes something hurls at you through the cover of night, colliding with you and jarring you awake. Last weekend was like that. I had somewhere somehow once again lost my way.

I’d stopped working on my book, had taken up with softball and the gym and looking good. I get that way sometimes. It’s hard for me to balance the physical and the cerebral, the short-term gains of hot pecs with the long-term gains of creative expression. I don’t do balance well, but then one does not develop a daily affection for crystal meth, say, if one has a talent for moderation. I find it easier to lift weights than to write a paragraph, and sometimes I get lazy.

And though I’ve become a better softball player, in secret I know the score. I will never be a better player than a writer. And I need to write. Which is rather too bad, in matters of paycheck and practicality. But it’s too late now, that die was cast way too long ago.

It took me a few days to get back to this, to get less scared and less stuck. To turn off Veronica Mars and sit down and log off and open a new document, a blank white screen, the blinking cursor that I chase with one word, then two.

Ditched by the Grey Lady

Tramview

My tenure on the blogroll of the New York Times came to a hilariously abrupt end after two days.  One day Dogpoet was there, the next day not. With no explanation given, I can only hazard a guess that it wasn’t so much due to my coy mentions of hot man-on-man action, but rather one of categorization. They had listed me under “Arts and Entertainment” for the San Francisco Bay Area, a clumsy fit at best. Since the Times has no “Personal Blogs” section, no “Stubborn, Cantankerous and Somewhat Misanthropic Writers” section, Dogpoet just fell through the cracks.

Thus the woeful story of my life as a writer, never quite fitting into the right category.  I’d like to earnestly believe that a guy could fashion his own category, and let the accolades follow.  But until then I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing, now that I no longer have to worry about offending the cultivated sensibilities of the Times’ readership. Like boring you with photos that the Manly Fireplug and I took at the top of the tramway in Palm Springs, looking down at the Coachella Valley from the San Jacinto Peak.

TramMike1

TramJoe1

TramMike2

TramJoe2

TramMike3

I’m smiling because I hadn’t seen the Fireplug in two weeks. Also I’m afraid of heights and my balls felt funny.

Ladies with an Attitude. Fellows That Were in the Mood.

“Oh my God,” I said, paging through The New Yorker, “a friend of mine has a poem published in here!”

“In The New Yorker?” asked the Manly Fireplug’s roommate.

“Yeah. Well, he’s not really a friend so much as a guy I know.”

“If he’s published in The New Yorker then he’s a friend now.”

I read the poem. “Oh my God! I know everyone in this poem. Including the bulldog!”

But it must be a different bulldog by now. I hadn’t hung out with the poet’s brother since 1990, in Minneapolis, the summer after my first year of college, the summer after I’d come out of the closet.

“I know his brother. Or knew his brother. I’m not sure where he is now, but that summer he used to vogue in the passenger seat of my car, smoking Marlboro reds. His mother thought I was a bad influence on him.”

“You are a bad influence.”

“I know. Everything I touch turns gay.”

The roommate turned back to Playstation 3.

“Have you found the plasma rifle yet?” I asked.

More Info on the Workshop

I have a few irons in the fire now: the book; the reading series; the workshop; and I’ve made it to the third round of hiring for a new writing job, too. All this and a quick trip with the Manly Fireplug and some of his family, to Carmel, a very pretty resort town down on the coast that doesn’t let you eat or drink on the streets. Whenever I end up someplace surrounded by the wealthy I feel a little bit like an anthropologist, observing the habits of the locals as they golf and shop at Bulgari.

I’ve been hearing from more people interested in the workshop, so I’ve gone ahead and planned out the dates. There’s still room left, so if you’re interested, read on:

The Barbershop Writing Group

Barbicide Logo
I will be leading a private, eight-week writing workshop starting in May of 2009. Drawing upon my own experiences as a writer, as well as my experiences with the MFA program at Columbia University, I’ve focused the curriculum on the memoir and fiction genres, though other genres, and all levels of experience, are welcome. Each week we will look at an element of craft (character, theme, scene, dialogue, etc) and discuss the work of two workshop participants in a relaxed, focused atmosphere. At the end of the eight weeks, participants will have the chance to take part in a public reading at Joe’s Barbershop, in the Castro district.

Maybe you need a little more structure, or feedback for your writing, or maybe you just need the company of a few other writers now and then. Maybe you don’t even feel qualified to call yourself a writer, but you’re willing to take a risk and try to put down a story or two. Maybe you want to pursue work that will bring added meaning to your life.

If you live in the Bay Area and think you might be interested in taking the workshop, send me an email. Feel free to spread the word to your friends.

Workshop Details:
Thursday nights, 7:00-9:30 pm
Eight Weeks, starting May 7th (skipping June 4th), ending July 2nd
Location: A comfortable home with a view in Corona Heights, above the Castro, near Buena Vista Park
Cost: $280

About the Instructor:

Michael McAllister, a veteran of writing workshops, attained his Master’s in Fine Arts from Columbia University, where he was awarded the Hertog Fellowship and the Dean’s Fellowship for his writing. He’s been published in various literary magazines, like The James White Review, Long Shot, Evergreen Chronicles, and Fourteen Hills. The Minnesota Center for Book Arts published a limited-edition chapbook of his poems, Jack on Jack on King on King, designed by the book artist Inge Bruggeman, in 1996. He is currently finishing a memoir, an excerpt of which appeared in the anthology From Boys to Men, from Da Capo Press, in 2006. He has authored the blog, Dogpoet.com, since 2001.

* * *

“Michael McAllister has a natural gift for literature. He is a talented writer, a careful reader, and a sensitive listener. He puts his fellow writers at ease, and his humble, modest nature hides the fact that they are in the presence of a truly wonderful writer.”

- Brian Eule, author of Match Day: One Day and One Dramatic Year in the Lives of Three New Doctors

“Michael McAllister is a master storyteller. He knows the grand and humble aspirations and failures of his characters, how they speak to one another, and how they move about in the world. These are the sensibilities he brings to others’ work—a sharp eye for story and a keen sense of character. But above all, he listens—to the writer’s intentions and to the work itself.”

-Miranda Weiss, author of Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska

Attack of the Little Paper Ticks

Writers, or their egos, tend towards fragility. The making of art seems to require that kind of sensitivity, or oversensitivity, depending on your perspective. Certainly our significant others may wish, now and then, that our skins were just a tiny bit thicker. But it we had thick skins we might not be driven to reconcile ourselves to life through art. We suffer, suffer I tell you! And so do our gay lovers.

Part of that fragility is the occupational envy of our peers’ successes. Nothing draws out our knives quicker than a popular and successful friend. There’s the universal thrill of schadenfreude, of course. But beyond that is the simple and pervasive fear of declining resources. Accurately or not, writers operate under the assumption that there are only so many enormous book advances, grants, and medals to go around. And one little precocious Jonathan Safran Foer, snapping up the lion’s share of the literary world’s love just a year or two out of Princeton, can set our collective teeth on edge for months and years to come.

The internet is fertile ground for schadenfreude, and I myself fall prey to this fragility all the time, gleefully clicking from one snarky book review to the next, leaving the computer after these sessions feeling bloated and nauseous. But in one area of my life, the area in which I expected my skin to stretch the thinnest, I’ve somehow developed a strange case of generosity.

I’m talking about my fellow students in the MFA program at Columbia, particularly in the nonfiction genre, where I concentrated. Two years have passed since I left New York, and word of my peers’ book deals and publications keep trickling back to me, and yet I have greeted the news without that familiar fear taking root within me. Instead their success has only given me greater hope, faith almost, that my own book will somehow find a place in the world.

The Cactus Eaters

Much of this is due to my familiarity with the authors themselves, all of them quite lovely people. Last week I attended a book reading and signing by my buddy Dan White (no relation to Harvey Milk’s assassin, as far as I know) whose book was published last year, a book that I was lucky enough to read in early draft form in workshop. Dan’s generosity and self-deprecating humor naturally deflect writer’s envy. And he made it even harder to dislike him by bringing to the reading an element of show-and-tell, complete with his trail fanny pack, scanned copies of his crazy journal, and an annotated map of the Pacific Crest Trail, complete with little paper ticks glued to the spot in Southern California where they feasted on him and his then-girlfriend.

Of course I indulged in moments of true selfishness during his reading, imagining myself up there in his place, reading from an actual bound copy of my book, fielding questions from an attentive, bordering-on-adoring audience. Sue me.

But indulging these fantasies during the creative process is dangerous. Thinking too much about the book’s reception, rather than the craft of the book itself, can pretty much guarantee artistic failure.

So last week with the Manly Fireplug I imposed a moratorium. No more talking about the book’s future. No more speculations on how it will be received, or if any doors would open for me after its publication. I took it one step further, into reality,  insinuating that he might end up with a husband trapped in literary obscurity for the rest of his life. For some reason he stuck his ground.

I’m mulling these issues because I promised myself that I would finish a rough draft of the book by the end of the year. The first draft is utter and complete torture for me, and so abysmal in quality that I would rather upload my “Should Have Put a Ring on It” dance routine to YouTube, than show anyone my rough draft.

Plus I’m kind of difficult to deal with when I’m in first draft mode, so the Fireplug deserves a break. Luckily I’m on track to meet the deadline.

I realized recently that I’ve made countless references to the book, but I don’t know if I’ve ever actually described it. And summing up my four hundred-page labor of love/hate in a couple of pithy sentences makes my skin crawl. But I’ll say this much:

It’s a memoir about my family, spanning twenty years, from when both of my parents came out of the closet, up until my mother’s death in 2002. It follows my family as it fractures and divides and takes new shape, as each of my parents end up settling down with same-sex partners who themselves were also previously married, with kids. It describes the fall-out of these events on me, who eventually also came out, and my brother, who turned out straight, and became, in more ways than one, the black sheep. You know, basically the story of your modern all-American family.

And as I work my way, in the rough draft, through the year 2000, arguably the worst year of my life, I fall prey to all kinds of fears. That I won’t be able to write about some events with enough distance to turn them into art. That it will sound like an undigested therapy session. That it’s all one big boring cliché and that (the worst fear of all) I will write a mediocre book. Not a bad one. A mediocre one.

This neurotic energy often greets the Fireplug when he comes home from a long day at the barbershop. Which is why I like to finish writing in time to make us a decent meal, so that for a few minutes I can feel the satisfaction of a finished creation. Which means bye for now – I have a date with a steak and a bunch of arugula.

Old School or Just Plain Old

This week marks the seventh anniversary of my blog. I do like the number seven, and I can say with all sincerity that dogpoet has made my life much richer, if also more, well, complicated. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Since the anniversary always falls at the end of the year, it usually finds me in a state of reflection. Or more reflection. If that were even possible. And as another year comes to a close I feel the urge to do something with all of the questionable wisdom I’ve accumulated, besides sling drinks part-time.

I’m in the early planning stages for a private writing workshop to be held in 2009. I’ll be drawing upon my own experiences as a writer, as well as my experiences with the MFA program at Columbia University, as I design the curriculum. The workshop will focus mainly on the memoir genre, though writers wanting to work in fiction or other genres are more than welcome. All levels of experience are encouraged. Click here for more details.

If you live in the Bay Area and are interested in the workshop, send me an email. I will be working out the details as I get a sense of participants’ schedules and goals. Feel free to spread the word to anyone who might be interested.

And since it looks like I will be reading again at a public event in February, I’m compiling an email list for those who’d like to be informed of such events. You can send me an email as well. I will only share your address with some close friends in Nigeria.

Fair warning: if you come to a reading and heckle me the Manly Fireplug will cut you.  Everyone else will get birthday cake. Or virtual birthday cake. We’re in a recession.

A Room or Two in Some Quiet Place

Last night for dinner I made black bean chili and cornbread for the first time ever, and since asparagus was on sale at the grocery store, I pan-fried some for a side. The Manly Fireplug raved about the meal while shoveling down the chili. I’m always surprised when I cook something that turns out well, since I never did much cooking before I met the Fireplug, aside from boiling some pasta. Neither of my parents cooked all that well, and so I’m teaching myself as I go along, with a couple of cookbooks for direction and more than a few mistakes under my belt. Cooking for two is far more pleasurable than cooking for one, and it satisfies something inside me, to give that to him, and to surprise myself now and then with a good meal.

I’ve been reading The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, one of those hard-to-classify books that I might never have read if I hadn’t stumbled across a profile on the author, Lewis Hyde, in the Times, and read the book’s praises by David Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood.  Essentially the first half of the book explores a few dozen cultures, throughout history, that are gift economies rather than marketplace economies. The second half of the book explores how the creation of art parallels these cultures, and explains why art cannot be given its proper due in a culture “increasingly governed by money and overrun by commodities.” The book opens with a quote by Joseph Conrad, which summarizes his argument:

“The artist appeals to that part of our being…which is a gift and not an acquisition – and, therefore, more permanently enduring.”

He uses Walt Whitman, along with Ezra Pound, as examples of artists who viewed their own creations as gifts to a community larger than themselves. And this quote, which also draws from some of Whitman’s diaries, moved me:

“There is a spiritual path in which the soul ascends in isolation, abandoning all creatures. But this was not the path for Whitman, so hungry for affection and so present in his body. As he grew older Whitman did in fact find a form for his ‘adhesive nature:’ he managed a series of long-lasting, basically paternal relationships with younger men, Doyle being one of them. But to judge from his letters, he wanted more. He wanted to ‘work and live together’ with a man; he wanted to ‘get a good room or two in some quiet place…and…live together.’ He never got it. When he presents himself to the world as ‘like some perfect tree,’ we will be right, therefore, to feel a touch of perfection’s loneliness.”

By reading this I am made more aware of my good fortune, that I have found such a companion. The Fireplug’s favorite story of mine is The Danger of a Twelve-Year Old Girl, which makes sense because the story is pretty much all about him, and since even the Fireplug admits that he can be a tad self-centered. When I reread the story now, however, I am struck by something: that we no longer “teeter at the brink of break-up on a weekly basis.” Something over time has changed, the Manly Fireplug has we both have stopped resisting, and we have settled into something far more comforting.

Even before Prop 8 we had agreed on a long slow engagement, as we still don’t even live together. The insanity of San Francisco real estate throws up a minor obstacle to that goal, though we are headed in that direction, towards that room or two in a quiet place, or at least in one of those sleepy, far-flung, less expensive neighborhoods.

And after we’ve moved in together and measured again our happiness, then we can plan a wedding, which I hope, by that time, will be legal. Obviously I’m driven by a selfish motivation to fight for our civil rights, for how much sweeter will that wedding be, knowing that we in some small part, along with our friends, made it happen?

But my own wedding plans aren’t the sole motivation. I want to fight for something that we can give to each other, and to those who will come after us. I guess it’s as close to a reason I have for keeping this blog for so long. It’s not self-expression I’m after, so much as a desire to give something to others, to give back to the brotherhood that came before me and paved the way, to hopefully make others feel a little less lonely. A lofty ambition, sure, but false modesty won’t do.

I’ll be attending that Town Hall meeting tonight on Marriage Equality and will post an update tomorrow with notes from the discussion. The Fireplug, who works late tonight, will eat leftovers.