So, over the past year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about blogging and its evolution and about “online brands” (for want of a not-annoying phrase). For various reasons, I decided to pull back on how much personal writing I put online, such as on this blog. Not so much because of privacy concerns, but concerns about putting information into inappropriate venues and maybe accidentally boring strangers. But lately I’ve been asked about my long-time blogging and have given this URL to interested parties, and I feel guilty when they come here and see nothing new. So I’m going to try to write something aimed at the people who asked, without alienating the people who’ve read everything up until now.
(Did you know that I put this much thought into my blog entries? Well, I do.)
I Am Houston’s First Poet Laureate
which is a supreme honor, and which actually made me cry a little bit when they told me. And which, apparently, surprised a few people because they hadn’t previously known about me, despite my ardent yet maybe inferior attempts to promote my work.
No more intro. Time for random anecdotes.
When I was a teenager, my best friend worked at a bail bonding firm in our neighborhood. On Friday nights, I’d go visit her at work because they had air conditioning, phones that didn’t cost a quarter, and sometimes pizza. Usually I’d sit in the chairs meant for clients, but once in a while I’d get to sit at the desk next to my friend’s. They had typewriters, and I’d type away, pretending to be a bailbondsperson. I typed letters to another friend who’d moved to Baytown, and I typed poems.
I remember feeling very free and sort of wicked when typing those poems. I was getting away with something, one. (Fooling people into thinking I was a business lady while banging out a long column of couplets about some boy.) And, two, the things I typed would be thrown away, so they could be anything. However dirty or sad or mad, however inane, however “You think you’re better than me because you’re in AP English?” they emerged? Would not matter, because I was going to get rid of them. Immediately.
But I never did. I couldn’t bear to. I folded each one and put it into my purse or between the pages of whatever book I was carrying around. One poem became a school assignment, eventually. One became a song in a short-lived rock band. One accidentally made its way into an ex-boyfriend’s hand and confused the hell out of him. Most went on to father children that now live in the deep reaches of my hard drive.
Today, I can’t use Capital Bail Bonds as a writer’s getaway. Instead, I use the parking lot of JC Penney’s. You think I’m sitting in my car feeling buyer’s remorse, but instead, I’m writing. I’m fooling you.
As a published author, I’ve visited a few writing groups and fielded questions from more than a few aspiring novelists. They always ask the same questions and I get tired of giving the same advice, so I become blunter and more succinct with each visit, until they stop inviting me.
The most common question is “How do you find time to write?” and my blunt answer is “Stop cleaning your house.” (Corollary: If your house is already dirty, then stop playing video games.) That answer widens eyes. I don’t know if anyone follows my advice, or if they go home and think, “Well, I may never finish my novel, but at least I’m not a slob!” (“I may never finish my novel, but at least I’m a Level 138 Paladin!”)
The second most common question is “I want to be a writer, so what should I do?” And my curt, mean, brutal answer is “Instead of going to parties and telling people that you’re going to be a writer, you have to go home and write.” The second-to-last time I said that to a group – let’s call them the Southwest Dilettantes – we had a little reception afterwards, and several members of the group walked up to me with wineglasses in hand and told me all about their writerly networking activities and how they were going to finish their novels some day soon.
Exactly one year later, I visited Southwest Dilettantes again. They asked the same questions and I gave the same answers, and I saw in their eyes that I wouldn’t be invited the following year. But this time, during the reception, a young man came up and told me in whispers that he’d heard me speak the year before and had spent the interval sitting alone nights, writing instead of talking about writing. I said, “Oh, okay.” (What do you do when someone actually takes your advice and comes to report to you? Do you feel pride, trepidation, both?) He told me that sitting home writing, while others were having fun at parties bragging about their potential accomplishments, was very difficult. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “So I just wanted to thank you.” And then he slipped away, I guess to his apartment, where he presumably had a blue IBM Selectric all raring to go, just like me twenty years before.
I told part of this on the radio the other day, so sorry if you’ve already heard it, but actually I’m only sorry if you heard it and it sounded different because I change it a little each telling, and if realizing that upset you. But actually, even if that happens, I don’t mind. Stories change. We edit our memories and add special effects.
After I sold my first book (a short prose collection) and finished the requested edits, back in the year 2002 or whenever it was, I was told that it’d be more than a year before anything else happened with it. At *least* a year and a half before the book was a physical thing. That made me sad. Today I’m experienced enough to inform people snottily, as if everyone should already know, that books take a year or more to get made. But back in 2002, I assumed that publishers were ON FIRE to get my work out into the world and hence would print my pages overnight and sew on covers by hand. So finding out that wasn’t the case pretty much devastated me. I cried a little. And what did I do next? I’ll tell you. I cleaned my apartment.
No, I’m kidding.
(Of course I didn’t clean my apartment. Why would I do that? Cleaning one’s home is only appropriate when one has a deadline looming. Nothing makes you finish a book like taking a break to clean your entire domicile, using a toothbrush to scrub each baseboard. You clean, you let the adrenaline from the panicked cleaning flow into your blood, you stay up all night, and then you turn in your finished book one week late, which is one week earlier than your editor wrote on her secret timeline. Hurray!)
So back in 2002, I had the year to wait, so I decided to write a chapbook. And I may have been a little angry when I put that first one together, like “Eff! This! I. Am. A. WRITER! and people-are-going-to-see-my-writing-right-now!!!#%!” I went through all my hoarded work that hadn’t gone into the book, wrote some new work to supplement my chosen themes, picked illustrations, figured out the puzzling process of turning 8.5-by-11-inch paper into a 5.5-by-8.5-inch booklet, emailed my finished file to the copy center, printed with help from the judicious yet emotionally distant man behind the copy center counter, and invited my blog readers to buy my work. “Buy my work!” I said. “Encourage my ego! Condone my bad habits! At the very least, satisfy your curiosity.”
The rest is history (depending on who’s telling it. Some archivists would care and some would recommend that Wikipedia delete the whole page).
So, for me, nine books and twenty-something years after those bail bond days, there are two kinds of book-writing: 1) the kind where you sell your book-to-be on a promise to finish it, then sweat and clean your house until you somehow turn it in one week past deadline, and 2) the kind where you think, “I am a WRITER and I am firm in my belief that people are dying to read my work RIGHT NOW!” and you pull it together in a blaze of industry and inspiration and your house is still dirty and you don’t even care and you email the file to your publisher… and then spend the next few weeks thinking, “Oh my god, why did I put that one thing and then that other thing into the book? People are going to think I’m [crazy/awful/arrogant/a man/a slob]!” And then you pour a glass of tequila with diet tamarind soda and you get over it.
Both of these book types are made up of long strings of bead-like moments of sitting in my car or in a dentist’s office, writing things that maybe no one will ever see.
I wanted to tell you that being chosen as Houston’s poet laureate made me feel justified in doing the latter, this last time. My first book of poems will physically exist in October of 2013. It’s called Falling in Love with Fellow Prisoners. If you’re curious, that book should satisfy.
Additionally, being chosen as Houston’s poet laureate gets me invited to parties. If I meet you with a wineglass, tell me something true.