la_fields: (Default)
I'm about halfway through the second of three books I plan to write this year.

I did not mean to be this busy, and I bet I never do it again, but I've also never felt more like a writer than I do right now (and one of the best kinds--I don't have to revise and it's looking like I'll be prolific).

A recent interview produced this bit of truth from Dorothy Allison: "Well, it's always such an absurd concept, the artist life. Like you were supposed to get an endowment, a grant … You know, if you get a decent day job that's somewhat clerically related, you get access to a computer, and paper, and a reasonable desk situation. I considered that the biggest grant I could get access to. And it was."

I recently figured that out the hard way! Dropped out of school, got a nice clerical position, resigned myself to being a drunk monk indefinitely, living on the outskirts of a hayfield in a state I never wanted (Texas). Instead of only drowning my sorrows in whiskey and fiction though, I got asked to do a little research project: how about an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend? Sounds easy!

It wasn't.

(1) Joseph and His Friend

I used my hours of daily commute time to start doing research, and it turned out to be way more than an annotation where I just identify that river, or quote from one of the author's letters for a second. I did read Bayard Taylor's letters, they don't age well and were mostly about his travels, which made him a household name in his own time, but sees his name stripped off of buildings in ours. In fact, the letters that would have been of interest to a modern reader (his fan-letters to Walt Whitman before publicly distancing himself from Whitman and that guy's sexy poems) were left out of his authorized stuff. Drama! Back-stabbing! Scandal! I had to research what that was about, which meant falling in love with Walt Whitman, then learning more about the Civil War and President Lincoln than I ever thought I would after graduating high school, then being amazed at just how many people basically came out to Whitman in letters from all over the English-reading world, and ... then I had to snap back to Bayard Taylor and his dull-by-comparison book. Secret histories: they're better than fiction! Fiction has to appear remotely plausible; real life has no such requirement.

More research had to be done on the man who inspired Taylor's book, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and then some research on Lord Byron's work and reputation just to understand what it meant to be called 'The American Byron,' then I found myself back to learning about Presidents (Buchanan this time), and Quakers and why everyone either loved or hated them, then I had to sit down with all these massive yarn balls and find the one side of the string that connected to the story I was supposed to be focusing on. I took a week's vacation from my clerical job around my birthday, which meant a nine day, brain-pummeling marathon: 33 mini papers on as many different subjects. You want to know why Joseph and His Friend is interesting? It's not for all its filler chapters on country parties and chores and decor, okay? It's for how strangely frank it is, given the climate of the time and the garbage slung at Walt Whitman for being as close to 'out' as one could be without being prosecuted for it like his devotee, Oscar Wilde. It's interesting to realize that this book was Taylor's fantasy for Fitz-Greene Halleck's happy ending, which he never got himself, but which Taylor got closer to: if you can't marry your friend, surely you can marry one of his female relatives, and thus become his family that way? That was one way to do it.

So: the best angle I found for completing my assignment commission was to nest Taylor's book in all that hidden context, stuff that even modern history books often neglect to include. I thought I would be done researching after this book, which has cover art now and is on its way to publication. I thought Joseph was what I would do in lieu of a dissertation, and that afterwards I'd be done with research forever, but then another project cropped up.

(2) A Gay A Day

This started as a joke between my friend and I, then a sort of called-bluff situation, then it detoured into a Dueling Dandies podcast segment, and now it's well on its way to getting written. I kept finding queers under rocks in Walt Whitman's correspondence, so the idea of a Gay A Day tear-off calendar (which is now going forward as a book) felt doable, and again, seemed easy. Sure the research for the podcast was tough, but these would just be little blurbs about dead gays, shouldn't be too much work, right? Wrong again!

Acquiring 366 people (that's a standard year plus a leap day) notable enough and verifiably homo/bi/trans enough to fill the list was tough in itself. We wanted it close to even between women and men (with some wiggle room for people who identified in between), we wanted to make sure it wasn't as white as cocaine on a snowbank, we wanted diversity of contribution (we're arty types, so it's easy to fill the list with authors and actors, but what about science, sports, politics, criminals, etc.), and we were worrying we'd never find enough people for the list, but we dug around, and there are indeed enough. We've even got a slush pile in case we need to replace anyone. But now, of course, we've got to actually research and write 183 mini bios each. WHY do I keep giving myself so much homework?!

I'm using this Memorial Day weekend to try and get 50 bios completed for month one (May). That means I can do one per weekday between here and New Year's Eve and have it done in 2017, while still leaving myself time around the minimums to do other things, like, I dunno ... write fiction? That was the original plan once my Clerical Grant finally came in. 

(2.5) Looking Back, Looking Forward

I've been writing original fiction for over ten years now, and the book I wrote at age 18 was the first one to get published at age 21 (I still don't understand why that didn't make me Queen Shit of Shit Mountain in grad school for Creative Writing, but oh well; I like to assume everyone else was just jealous, and hopefully I'll move on from the bitterness eventually, though it's taking a while). That book was the start of a series that's about to reach its fifth and final book, its ending. I want it done before Spring of 2018, when I'll finally turn 30.

I started out doing write-what-you-know fiction, so my first main character liked what I liked, lived in my old house, had my anxieties and issues, BUT got a boyfriend (that's the fiction part). Now that I've written six novels--four in the Disorder Series, two outside of it--the pattern appears to be that I go for researching and reworking stories that already exist, but just aren't organized the way I'd like them. I may not be a 'pure fiction' writer; I like patching together Frankenstein monsters too much!

The first to break the pattern was my queering of the Sherlock Holmes series (I needed to reframe that whole thing as gay), and the second was the Leopold and Loeb case (all the other treatments of the case focused too much on the fallout; I wanted to wallow in and exhaust the lead-up). The first book pulled from my undergraduate thesis and all I knew about Oscar Wilde and the 'bachelors' of Victorian London; the second book plunged me into trial transcripts and Chicago-iana. I had to research Chicago because, even after living there for four years, I'd always been too much of a hermit to collect my own first-hand knowledge of the world. I wonder if the new pattern isn't emerging to stay: will my YA series be the aberration someday? Because right now everything I produce outside of that series is more like ripped-from-the-Obscura-Times-headlines stuff, just digging around in the unclaimed-facts pile and pulling out novel material. Maybe my books going forward will all be collages made of stuff other people report back from the real world, since I don't like it out there myself. It's an endless well of material, gap-filling the past; it could easily be the work of a lifetime.

I've got a couple of things that I can choose between after I finish the Disorder Series. I want to write a Murder Book with my best friend, and my publisher wants a Rogues Gallery of real-life queer villains, which will be easy to populate once the Gay A Day book is complete. Maybe another annotation if the first one does well; after America's First Gay Novel, Joseph, I can do The World's First Gay Happy Ending (Imre; the thing's so obscure I don't think a digital copy even exists yet). I could throw darts at a bunch of ideas and just go forward like that, or maybe I'll be taken by a wild desire to write something of my own again. Honestly, this is next year's problem though, because I've got something to finish first.

(3) The Disorder Series: Fixation

My old love, my baby, my god have I been writing these books for a long time! I wonder if I'll end the series in a snot-bubble, sobbing mess like J.K. Rowling did with the end of the Harry Potter series, or if it'll be like finishing some spiritual trial and just numbly detaching from all the burdens that used to weigh me down. This June I'll be re-reading through the first four books (that's always a weird feeling; a sort of self-fellatio most people are too disgusted or mature to even try), making note of any loose threads, any Chekhov's guns lying around waiting to be triggered, etc. I bet I find more typos than I can stand (if I could cut a tally onto my own flesh to take away each and every one of them I would, they bother me that much), but the fourth book's read-through will be an editorial one, since it's not yet published, so I can still improve there. Then come July it'll be time to wrap it up.

The books in this series were all written during summer breaks, and summer's here again. They're all the same size (76K words), each has fifteen chapters and a prologue, they all start and end on the road somehow, all use bathrooms as transitional spaces (I learned that when the first book got included in a Gender Theory curriculum--didn't do it on purpose, but I did realize it was a thing I'd already built into every book's plot, which is neat), and they've each managed to grow up with me (slowly). They might turn out to be more therapy than craft in retrospect, but I like to think of them as little time capsules. I put a lot of my own odds and ends into these buddies.

It's starting to brew again, that's why I'm going so hard on GAD bios this weekend, so I can compartmentalize those things into manageable chunks, and otherwise focus on this. Brewing means:

- I suddenly have a ridiculous soft spot for Fall Out Boy music again.

People laugh very hard every time I mention listening to that band, but you've got to admit: there's no soundtrack more perfectly teenaged. The pettiest drama, the most heartfelt moodiness, it is the perfect way for me to tap back into a childish vulnerability and shamelessness that's pretty far in my rearview these days. Like: I've got plenty of shame now, that's what college teaches you.

- I'm fondly remembering my favorite bits from the earlier books. 

Remember the one time a guy said he met his boyfriend in church, which is technically true, but ya know, not the way it sounds?! AHA. Remember that fucking burn about Romeo and Juliet laws and someone was like, 'oh yeah, so where's Juliet?' PRICELESS. Omg I can't wait to bring back that character who disappeared for a book or two! THAT'S THE LONG CON, BABY, YES. It's not that these moments are that important, it's that I'm rekindling some old enthusiasm, and making notes on new little zingers I want to include in this book. ONE LAST HURRAH.

- I've come to terms with the fact that a sixth book spin-off I had planned is never going to happen.

I can't ever see the main characters any older than myself at any given time. Right now they can be close to 30, because that's where I am, but just like for myself, I don't know what 40 will look like for any of them. The one line that made me think I'd have to write the whole life story of Tulsa (from book one) I will just fit into a flashback in book five, not a problem. When I first conceived of a spin-off, I had an idea like, 'Oh boy, by the time I'm super old and I've written all these other books, I bet I'm ready to write a book about like a whole life, saga-ish, probably.' Now that's chump change to me; I don't want to and I don't care. It was much harder to be up to snuff for the Sherlock Holmes and the Leopold and Loeb projects--I've already beat better challenges! I have nothing left to prove and no interest in it anymore. That's a victory, not a forfeit, and it's better this way.

- I know what my main man's going to be reading and I'm so tickled we'll have that in common forever.

My main character, Marley, has been a great place to stash any uncomfortable truths I have. Like Oscar Wilde said, Give a man a mask, and he'll tell you the truth. I wrote about his anxieties and how incurable he was long before I realized I was talking about myself. Knowing that now, it's great to compare what I thought would be my fate with how I've actually turned out. It got better! It wasn't fun but I didn't die or anything, just lost some hair from the stress of it, which is a symptom I quickly gave to Marley, because in a few spots like that we're still exactly the same. He stuck around long enough to drink as much as I do, and next up he's going to read what I read, and feel just as passionately about it: Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend. Marley will also do some scholarship out of school. 

(0) Charles Jackson's Native Moment

Before I got into that Joseph annotation, the aforementioned BFF recommended I read The Lost Weekend, which meant I had it during the darkest days of my quarter-life crisis. A lot of people read that book and say, "WHOA, I'll never drink again!" I've never read anything that felt so familiar to me. Blackouts, sure, and charley horses too; that roller-coastering between pomposity and self-loathing, definitely; the pathetic love for books as the only friends who'll never abandon you, OF COURSE, BROTHER; sexually confused and trying to write your way out of it? Oh, buddy.

I went down a very therapeutic rabbit hole with Charles Jackson. During the year I quit PhD classes for clerical work, and finally got enough health insurance to find out I had a permanent handicap from some sickness I caught abroad (one stone-deaf ear, anosmia and almost no sense of taste), I read all of Jackson's books and his biography. In finding out about his fucked-up childhood, his sick youth, his addictions, his fame, his fall from glory, and his deterioration, I found my new best pal: someone I can love and admire and learn some hard lessons from--he's like a very elaborate memento mori. I also found out he had an unpublished manuscript in the archives at Dartmouth College, about whatever homosexual incident chased him out of school and later haunted the drinking binges he reproduced for The Lost Weekend. And then, GOOD NEWS: Jackson's manuscripts have no restrictions on them, and Dartmouth was willing to scan and email me the pages.

Talk about scholarship out of school: I didn't have any use for digging through his drafts, I just needed to see them. I'm sure some of the notes I took will be handed over to Marley now, but I've taken a lot of notes in the past that I was able to rely on years later (for my thesis, for short stories, for all these research books I'm on about today); it's a very useful compulsion.

Anyway: Native Moment's title comes from a Walt Whitman poem (you see all these interconnecting threads?!) and is the fictionalized version of what happened to Charles Jackson in college. After a childhood where two of his siblings were killed in a gruesome car-meets-train accident, after his father abandoned the remaining family, after Charles and his brother were both molested by the church's piano player, he finally went to college and thought he was home. His reverence for the 'ugly cathedral' of the liberal arts building, his sense of belonging to a fraternity, his weekend job doing real, paid writing for the Newark Courier--he was happy for a minute!

Before he was made a full member of the fraternity, however, he caught feelings for an older pledge, wrote a letter about it, and that letter was brought as evidence against him by the upperclassmen as grounds for tossing him out. The incident is alluded to in The Lost Weekend as just some overly enthusiastic hero-worship (that was still too queer for the club), but in Native Moment it's described quite a bit more explicitly and painfully: the Jackson character, Phil, lets this much older pledge use his bed to sleep in when the guy doesn't even live in the house (or anywhere else, because he's a bum), just like he lets him 'borrow' his money and smoke his cigarettes and take his clothes. When Phil crawls into bed with the drunken guy he hero-worships, that guy pushes Phil's head under the covers for a blow job. Phil didn't know what that meant or what to do about it, so ultimately he wrote a letter apologizing for being so easily used (basically), and when confronted about the letter and the act, he got banished from the fraternity, and quit college for good. One more heartbreak for Jackson to try and drink away. I love the guy so much I could just hug him to death.

Jackson's biographer, Blake Bailey, points out that this book was once quite close to publication, and that if it had been published it would have been "a work of pioneering frankness," but it was turned down because the publisher was not "sufficiently confident of the commercial possibilities." 

On that topic--the idea that people don't like buying what's uncomfortably true--we return to where I started: there's something very freeing in writing about true things, because telling the truth is some of the best armor in the world. Readers want happy endings, and in a world of fan service, they will sometimes hate a well-written book for not handing them false comfort, which is something that Jackson came up against a lot, and yet always tried to resist. Here's a quote from some of his earliest college writing, when he took on the role of theater critic:

"If there is anything that makes our blood literally boil, it is to hear someone say, 'One ought to go to the theater to be amused; there is enough sadness and trouble in life without having to see it reproduced upon the stage.' ... To believe in the theater as a place merely to be amused is like trying to 'kid' yourself that the world is a Pollyanna paradise, and that we are all little glad-children."

Myself and my Marley and Charles Jackson? We are not glad-children, and I'm happy about that. 
la_fields: (Booze Time)
Hear me argue for the better drunk in An Earful of Queer’s special segment, Dueling Dandies!

An Earful of Queer is a new monthly LGBTQ fiction podcast; each episode comes with an interview in front, and a cage match in the back!

First up for interview is my own dear publisher Steve Berman, and then it’s the debut episode of Dueling Dandies: the Talented Tipplers edition!


**********
 
 

That's me defending The Lost Weekend’s Charles Jackson against my MFA buddy and her pick of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman: who was the better drunk, and who would win in a literal cage match? Listen to find out!
la_fields: (Sparks)
The Dropout, The Worker
Since I quit that PhD program at UT Dallas (and I still spit on the memory of it quite bitterly), I've been hard at work. First up were the on-the-ground concerns of sudden, full-time working life:

- It took 4 hours of public transit each day to commute to my new job. That lasted for eight months until my lease was up and I had the cash on hand to move to the other side of the city (where I now happily commute about ten minutes a day, on a bike with a basket).
- During those eight months, I was ghostwriting over $3,500 of smut (at one cent per word) to help pay off my remaining student loan debts, start a retirement account, and fund my move. I'm still trying to get the 2016 max into my retirement account before tax day, but I can do the last of it on my salary alone.
- After moving to a better location (that's being built up even as I sit here, with a corner gas station about to open), I asked for a raise based on the copywriting I do at work, and I received one. I'm also getting a bonus for over 15 hours of transcription work I did last year--during which time, remember, I was also ghostwriting a novel a month. There were a couple of tendinitis flare-ups, but every bit of this work has been worthier of my time than teaching at UTD’s grad program, because it compensates me enough to let me provide for my financial future, rewards me for doing extra work, and continues to provide me with health insurance.

The Worker, The Learner
That's all good, but I must miss learning, right? Hmm. When I ask people why they don't balk at the treatment they receive from grad programs like mine, they pretty defensively insist that they love learning, so much, and maybe they care more about learning than money, unlike me. Oh, please; let's examine that:

- That 4 hours a day on the bus (cut down to 2 hours after I got enough money to take Lyfts in the morning, so I could sleep a normal human amount of hours) meant I had a lot of trapped time on my hands. Right around then, my publisher asked me if I was willing to do an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend (1870), and I said yes. The artistic life has the same rules as improv: the only correct response is, "Yes, and..."
- So I spent that time on the bus reading the letters of Bayard Taylor, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Walt Whitman, among others; their biographies, their associations, and their works, discovering all the stories behind the story that is America's first gay novel.
- Then last week I took some vacation time and spent 9 days in my apartment sorting, citing, and compiling the connections. The structure of the project is basically little strings of history, personal anecdote, and secret curiosities to go along with each chapter of the book itself (the manuscript of which I had to clean up line by line to match the original). We’re looking for some gayish American pastoral cover art now.

The Learner, The Lover
Out of this annotation research, the big winner was Walt Whitman. He was the best guy. I read his poetry as an undergraduate and still don't particularly like it--not that it isn't good, it's just not at all to my taste; I'm more for post-modernism, or at least structure and brevity, I still like rhymes, can't seem to cure that, etc. I like Whitman's phrases though ("I am large, I contain multitudes" or "dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you") and I love his intentions and meanings, so basically I love him, the man, way more than his work (though the two are completely intertwined, I get that). His thoughts and asides, his boys, his volunteer work in Civil War hospitals for the wounded (which he was criticized for because it was "unmanly" to nurse if he was healthy enough to fight, according to some). I'm so glad I had a real reason to find out about him.

I know more about American history now, the Civil War, the presidents of the time (Lincoln was a sweetheart too) than I ever picked up in a school. I can assure you that if I had stayed in that PhD program, I never would have had time to do a project as large as this. "Uh, but isn't that what a dissertation is?" Shut your educated-fool mouth: poverty trumps study. If you don't have enough money for food, housing, or health care, you don't have enough time to think about anything else. If a professor tells you otherwise, it's because they need you to stay stupid and studying what will not actually help your circumstances, because their tenure is funded by your underpaid labor or your overpriced tuition. That's true, the advisors at UT Dallas know it is true, they are either too powerless or too unconcerned to change it, and I won't contribute to an evil machine if I can help it. One of my brief cohort-mates from the PhD program quit the teaching part of it (because “I am worth more than poverty-level wages and participation in this institutional nonsense"), got two part-time jobs, but... still pays to attend graduate classes? She says she couldn't be happier. Yes, she could be! Like if she went to a better school! She's barely above an anti-union scab in my eyes, but if she thinks she's happy propping up the place that pays her fellows so horribly, I still don't see how I'm the one who's wrong (because I'm not).

I love learning, I'll work very hard for very little money (my publisher offered me $250 plus royalties for the annotation, and it's taken more than a year of work), but for a school to give me a stipend below the poverty line, forbid outside work, and offer no health care or summer assistance, that is so outrageous you could call it abuse. To take copious amounts of money from students domestic and foreign and provide them with inexperienced TAs as their only instructors in mandatory courses (with almost no guidance and certainly no real consequence for inadequacy) is disgusting, and a failure of a school. My friend who completed a PhD at UT Austin was quick to point out that all the all the information I got out of the Walt Whitman Archive is associated with UT Austin, so I can't be too mad at the University overall (haha, yes I can!), but she also made twice what I was paid for doing considerably less grunt work than they demand from grad students at UT Dallas. She never would have put up with such treatment herself.

The Poetry of it All
I did find some bits of poetry I liked (outside of Whitman's phrases) while reading for this project. This excerpt from Wordsworth leads off "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake" by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the inspiration of Joseph and His Friend:

“The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.”
- Wordsworth.

Whoa, yeah? And this excerpt of Byron, that leads off another gay novel of the time (discussed before on my LiveJournal), which I brought up in the annotation to make sure women aren’t left out of the conversation for a book where a wife is everyone’s worst problem. At the top of A Marriage Below Zero:

"I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree
I planted,—they have torn me.—and I bleed:
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."
- Byron.

You see what I mean about rhymes? I’m a sucker for them.

The Artist
I went to a good school once, it was my original alma mater, the New College of Florida, and that's where I got all my research skills (I even got to return to topics from my undergrad thesis with Joseph, just like a real dissertation--Oscar Wilde's name as a code word for homosexuality; Whitman's name worked the same way, and did it first). However, since then (including my MFA, the private after-school program where I taught in South Korea, and my PhD program entirely) it's been nothing but people going through the motions and putting in the minimums to get money from the students and then get out. My way out of that fiasco mentally was the fact that I consider myself an artist first before an academic, and I took my lessons from the examples of artists, poets in fact (though I'm a prose-writer almost exclusively): A.E. Housman got kicked out of school for having a crisis on the day of his exams? No matter, he got a job and did scholarship out of school until they took him back anyway. T.S. Eliot got a job in a bank so that his literal fortunes would stay stable enough to stay out of the way of his real work. Walt Whitman held a university education against men, this is from Intimate with Walt: Selections of Whitman's Conversations With Horace Traubel, edited by Gary Schmidgall:

When Traubel tells Whitman he worked for four years in a printer’s shop, Whitman naturally applauds, this being his own employment history: "Good! good! that’s better than so many years at the university: there is an indispensable something gathered from such an experience: it lasts out life. After all the best things escape, skip, the universities.”

I have escaped the universities! Sweet are the uses of adversity! universities! Same difference! From this project has already come another research book that I'll be doing with one of my MFA cohort-mates, the improv one ("yes, and," remember?), and from that project we have material for a recurring podcast segment that we'll record later this month, and from there who knows what else will come up? I have one last planned book to finished before I turn 30 (the final installment of my young adult Disorder Series, and I just turned 29, so the deadline is on), and after that I'm free to work as I please, go where I please, do what I please, because I've got a job that respects me, and money enough to enjoy my life. I can do work on the side that gives me artistic and academic purpose because I have the means for it. I even had the means to buy scans of an unpublished Charles Jackson manuscript out of the archives at Dartmouth, for nothing more than the pleasure of learning everything I can about him. I've got a lot more work to do, and while it's a tragedy that this kind of dedication and zeal for learning found no means of support in a PhD program, it's not my tragedy anymore, and that's still nice every day.

Profile

la_fields: (Default)
la-fields

June 2017

S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
18192021222324
25 2627282930 

Syndicate

RSS Atom

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Jul. 20th, 2017 08:35 pm
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios