The Next Step

I’ve got a story coming out in Heavy Feather Review this summer, and it’s another story about a trans person. I think I’ve written exactly one story that’s not about a trans person.  Even in that one, there’s a secret trans teenager in the background.  She only has one line of dialogue, but I’m pretty sure she’s thinking about coming out to her best friend in the drive-through lane of a Starbucks.

There’s no shortage of writers out there talking about rejections and how to deal with them, so I don’t have much to add to the conversation about that. Thank god for the internet, though, because it really IS nice to know that someone once told Alice Munro that her work was unsaleable.  And Octavia Butler, and everyone else I love, probably.

In truth, I don’t usually mind rejections, because it means that someone read (presumably) the first paragraph of my story before shooting me a polite no-thanks.  It means that I’m still in the game, that I had something to send out two months ago, and that I might have something to send out in another few months or so.  I’m not terribly prolific. 

It also helps that I’ve been a reader and editor for a few publications, and I know that when I’m rocketing through a slush pile, I’m not thinking personal thoughts about the writer or feeling competitive or like I’m Ruler of the World.  I am just looking at the writing and wishing sincerely to be moved.  That helps.

There is one rejection, however, that I do wish to talk about, because it causes a different kind of anxiety, and not one that is wholly about writing and/or publishing.  My story collection, which is a bunch of stories about trans people, was rejected last year from a trans-centric publishing house for being a little too “Trans 101.” They’re looking for the “next step in the conversation.” I got it, immediately. They were right; my stories are full of fucked up self-loathing folks stumbling through transitions they don’t want to deal with.  Or running away from transition, or running away from someone trying to beat the shit out of them.  Or they’re just already dead and pretty cool with that.

What I wonder is this: when writers are obsessed, is there a next step in the conversation?  I can’t help but think that I will need to come to some sort of peace with transition before I can even start to consider the next step, and I cannot imagine being at peace with transition.

 I know it happens for some people.  There’s a river to ford, a safe place to bank on the other side.  Then it’s over, and everyone (including you) moves on.  Drivers licences are different, names are printed in the paper, nobody tries to punch you in a public bathroom.  However, It’s been 13 years and I still can’t make a solid pronoun choice.  What’s more, I don’t even want to.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to participate in the next conversation when it happens.

My favorite writers, the ones to whom I return frequently, offer me the consolation of similar obsessions.  Every story I read by Michele Faber, for instance, or Rachel Ingalls, or Shirley Jackson, or Octavia Butler, unsettles me in familiar and winning ways.  I can return because I have not outgrown their prose, and I don’t have any answers to the questions posed.  Often, I don’t even remember the stories – I only know that when I open the book I will be reminded, and then mystified again.

I don’t have any answers here, either, only questions about how to write a story outside an obsession.  Why would I spend my time writing that story? I probably wouldn’t.

 

walls and bridges

1. The Question: I never know how to respond when my students ask me why we have to read so many books about “different cultures.”  My first reaction is anger – an unwieldy, emotional kind that is impulsive and cruel.   It is precisely for this reason that I always keep a cup of iced coffee nearby.  I reach for it when I need a few seconds to think about how cool it is to have a job.

If I’m lucky, I can compose my face into a generous smile and begin to ask students questions about what they deem to be “different” about the culture in the book at hand.  Eventually, after much pencil tapping and shrugging and uncomfortable side-eyeing, we reach the groundbreaking conclusion that the book is not solely about A White Straight American Experience.  The students repeat phrases like “it hits you over the head,” and “rubs your nose in it,” as though they’re being potty trained by a sadist.

If I’m not feeling so lucky, I’ll say something about literature being a conduit for all human experience and leave it at that.  After all, we have syntax and shit to talk about.  I’ll promise myself that I’ll  dedicate a Research Sunday in the near future to the answer for this question and I’ll promise myself that I’ll get it right next time.

Both responses are wrong: incomplete, superficial.

2.  The Walls:  In the Time of the Butterflies, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Life of Pi, The Awakening, anything by Gloria Anzaldua

Nick Hornby reports crying tears of frustration at the hands of Iain M. Banks’s Science Fiction novel Excession in a 2005 Believer column.  Even the blurb on the back filled him with terror.  I feel similarly when trying for any point of time to make headway into The Fellowship of the Ring or the first book of The Game of Thrones.  I want the experience of having read these books, because I want to participate in conversations about Ents and Dire Wolves when they are happening around me (as they often do).  However, I don’t want the experience of ACTUALLY READING the books because I hate them.  I don’t know why.  I do like dragons and Renaissance festivals.

I have a wall when it comes to detective series novels.  I’ll read a one-off thriller with no problem.  But as soon as I turn the book over and see that this same detective is making a return visit to the pages, I suddenly can’t be bothered.

Another wall: All Historical Fiction.

This doesn’t mean that I am particularly snooty.  I’ll read just about anything about a serial killer, a school shooting, or a person who rides horses.

All readers are going to have natural walls.  Some books need to be read anyway.

3. The Bridges:  Fight Club, Fist Stick Knife Gun, Gilgamesh, Hamlet,  Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

I guess it’s not rocket science, but it will take more than month of Research Sundays to figure out how to teach students that walls are sometimes worth scaling (especially since I can’t read a book about a dragon), and experiences are worth reading even if no one is interested in appropriating the coolest parts.

 

 

 

I see a long journey and its end.  The face in the crowd is yours.  I see a long journey and at the end of the day the face in the crowd belongs to you.  I am reading something.  You think I forgot this, but I didn’t.  I am reading something and you are listening and we have never met, so it’s the end of a long, long journey.  The face in the crowd is yours.

Once, it happened in a town far away from both our homes and I forgot to look for you because I was so nervous.  After I read, sick with a fever that refused to abate for days before or after, I stood, sweaty and bigger than everyone there.  I just stood there and didn’t look.  If ever, at the end of a lifetime of years, you are finally there, I might forget to look.  I might miss your face.

There is only one lifetime of years, and it’s the lifetime or the years, never both.  You have to choose.  These hands are ten years older and ten years more beautiful; the scar from our time is still visible on the middle knuckle, the biggest one, the busted one, the one that grew back strong and crooked.  It is because you are not dead.

The dead are gone and about them I am wistful with eyes full of stars and dreams that bend hard upon the violence of loss.  You are not dead, and I am not wistful.  I am curious about your voice and the way you get in and out of a car, the way you order a coffee and snap a red leash onto your dog’s collar.  I am new and whole and curious now, and it was a long journey that’s now at its end.  All our memories are of things that never happened.

There is one picture of us that I still like.  You are seated at an outdoor café in Fredricksburg, and the sun is just about gone.  You are probably having peaches or something. Your teeth are big and bright in the dusk, your eyes in shadow.  The darkness looks to be coming down the street, rolling in on a cloud.  You don’t know it’s there, and neither, probably, do I.  There’s a book in your lap – one that I bought you and wrote your name in.  One you sold later, after. The darkness has already made a home in your eyes, but all I see is love.  I am not in the picture.