Recipe for the Writer's Life
Or, at least, this one writer's life
Prep time: A lifetime.
Ingredients: Random life events.
Directions: Put all in a jar with vinegar and sugar. Shake. Wait.
Serves: The community.
Important things to know about yesterday:
The child did not go to prom.
I cleaned the fish tank.
I built a page for Inlandia Books.
This morning, I’m still thinking about revision, as I was before bed last night.
I’m working intermittently on a long-form creative nonfiction project around my grandfathers, for whom my youngest son—the one who did not go to prom last night—is named. There are still things that, even after thirty years as a writer, I do that are “wrong”: I revise as I go, I don’t outline, I go down the rabbit hole of research so deep that I run out of time in a given session to do any actual writing.
I’ve never written a query letter let alone a book proposal so I don’t really know how this goes. But, here goes. I will publish this book. Eventually.
At the first obstacle, some people might throw up their hands, or just never get past the hard stuff. My talent over the years has been to persevere regardless of what anyone says, or especially if someone someone says I can’t do something. That’s basically a surefire way to get me to do something: Tell me I can’t.
A poet once told me (or a group of us, really) that a double abecedarian was nearly impossible and that we shouldn’t even try. So I wrote one. It appears in Seven Floors Up. It also became part of a character in my friend’s novel. Another time, when I was pregnant with my oldest son and working at what was then called Kinko’s (now FedEx Office) and I told a customer about the all the creative things I was planning to do when I was staying home, raising my son. At the time, I was dabbling in painting, plus of course writing poetry. He said there was no way I’d be able to do any of that. Well, my first book was written with my son in my lap. I founded a literary journal. I found Inlandia. The rest is history. So if you really want me to do something, tell me I can’t.
As I was creating a page on the main Inlandia website for Inlandia Books, I wanted to convey our guiding principles; our publishing philosophy, so to speak. Inlandia came into the world on the back of a book, but we soon found that we needed a way to publish books on our own, without the help of a co-publisher. I’ve told this story many times but it comes down to about the same thing: I had no idea what I was doing and I did it anyway. It was a bumpy road (doing book layout in Word, for starters) but here we are, more than a dozen years and a few dozen beautiful books later.
I remember a conversation with Marion. She thought, maybe one day, if I worked hard, that I could be executive director when she retired. To this young mom from Moreno Valley who had formerly worked the floor in retail, food service, and manufacturing, it seemed a pie-in-the-sky aspiration. Me, running anything? But here I am. Life is sneaky that way. I don’t think, at that moment, that Marion knew what was in store, but when the time came, I said Yes when she asked if I’d hold down the fort. I wanted her to be able to focus her energy on recovery. Later, when my mom developed breast cancer too, she loaned us her binder about her treatment which she had dubbed “an inconvenient year”. I never imagined that she might be gone for good.
We had a few years—2012 to 2015—when I was able to lean on her for mentorship. I still don’t feel qualified to be “in charge” but I admit it’s become second nature.
As I was writing the copy for the Inlandia Books page, I lamented that we still don’t have a managing editor for Inlandia Books. I have been the de facto editor, but Inlandia has five core programs, of which publications is only one, plus there’s all of the administrative and other necessaries to running a nonprofit. I keep wanting to build the publications program and bring it in line with the standard model, but as I was writing it, thinking about the ways in which we are different from other independent presses I’ve known, I realized, we are different—and that’s good.
How? Well, first, we don’t have a “gatekeeper”. We choose books by consensus. We work collaboratively. We routinely consult with each other, our team of specialists—aka working writers. We are egalitarian, impartial but open minded, and pragmatic. If something isn’t working, we fix it, or scrap it, start over. We’re a work in progress.
As writers, we’ve each got our own projects. Thinking about our core staff and publications committee members, we’re writing public and personal histories, podcasts, writing for film, for posterity, poetry, essays, novels, short stories. We celebrate each other’s successes. We’re a community of writers helping other writers, so that work feels more like hanging out with good friends, and would be pure pleasure were it not for the occasional heavy lifting. We’re not perfect, but we’re real.
Today, in the name of work, I get to help out the Friends of the Library and help a writer I’ve long admired, Susan Straight, get more of her books out into the world. Tomorrow I get to spend the day with a facility full of Black comic creators, listening to panels and introducing a young artist and writer to others in his field. Yesterday, I hung out in my office with cats, if you can call that work. Then last evening, I brainstormed on Zoom with two teen-aged poets who are going to change the world.
Monday, the week starts all over again.
I have my own writerly things to look forward to, including my own book launch. But more about that later. Right now, I need to finish my coffee, eat my sugar free-fat free yogurt, take some pain meds, and get ready to move some chairs.
Here is a poem I wrote for Marion.
It appears in The Body at a Loss.
An Inconvenient Year — For Marion Mitchell-Wilson, 1946-2015 At the memorial, the hall is lined with chairs, two hundred Bodies pressed close, the August air thick with their perfume. In my hand, the glossy program laced with images: Marion as a young woman, mother, later. Her college roommate sings “The Way We Were” And I think of my mother beside me, her own Diagnosis, treatment, and remission; Marion’s Fat binder labeled “An Inconvenient Year” On loan as we fumbled through the same series Of diagnostics, chemo, & radiation, At a time when Marion’s own treatments Had been pronounced done. My mother’s hats now sit stacked on the table, for donation. Her hair is back. The cancer is... gone? Marion is gone. On the patio, I take a slug Of champagne, another, and again. She would have scoffed at me crying -- Sweetie, no tears. Her daughter at the podium spoke Of her as a woman who knew precisely what she wanted, Even until the end; someone always up for a night cap; A splash of something spicy in the glass. Kentucky bourbon, straight. “Rebel Yell”. I’ll take a glass of that.