What to write once you’ve done the thing.

May 10, 2014. About a month after I joined my local roller derby league, I posted the above photo on Instagram. “It’s easiest to write when you have done something worth writing about. If you’re stuck, go outside.” Looking at it now, the message still rings true, although I can’t believe it took me more than three years to notice the missing apostrophe.

I had noticed in myself a lot of circular thoughts, and a certain amount of boredom with myself, my way of thinking and living. I needed to get outside myself, outside my comfort zone, beyond my current knowledge and experience. I needed to live a little, but I had no idea how much I was about to live.

When you play roller derby, every year feels like three. Home season, travel season, and off-season are each jam-packed with a year’s worth of living. Especially off-season, which seemed to be the only time I could check in with the rest of the world, reconnect with non-derby friends, visit my family, and catch up on sleep. Maybe that’s why I feel so much older now, only a few years later. I did a lot, and I learned a lot. I intended to write about it all along the way, but living the adventure and processing in real-time left little brain space for translating my experience into readable material worthy of the effort required to post on the internet. And aside from that, my anxiety disorder was in full swing during much of that time, so to post anything that  might make me feel to vulnerable didn’t seem wise. Somewhat unwittingly, I forced myself to follow my own advice above, as well as some other thoughts I kept pinned to my wall.

Slow down. Edit. You’ll know when it’s ready.

And.

There’s a lot of pressure in writing a letter on good paper.

In other words, don’t rush, and don’t be precious.

The intervening three years have been an exercise in observation of the self under extreme pressure. In the yoga world, we talk about tapas, the fire in which karma is burned, the drive that fuels our practice. For three years, roller derby became my yoga. I made it my intention to be as fully present to the experience as possible. Every hit, every lap, every victory and defeat, every after party and every heartbreak — that was my tapas. When I fell on my ass during All Star tryouts, my coach asked if I was OK, and I told him the only thing that was hurt was my ego. I dedicated that year to Kali, the goddess tattooed on my right arm, the ego killer. And boy did my ego get killed in the most spectacular ways.

I thought I might write about it all after retirement, but I’m not sure how. There’s so much. And of course, there are other people involved, people who I sometimes loved and sometimes resented, who have flaws and hearts just like my own, and it would be impossible to tell my own story without touching the pulse of a few of theirs.

So while I figure that out (assuming I will eventually figure *something* out, even if that something is that this story isn’t the one I came here to tell) I guess I’ll be reviving and reclaiming this dusty little corner of the internet. As always, I make no promises. My  plan is to keep following my own advice, to allow myself the luxury of time to process and write, and to indulge in the simple joy of expression.

Oh, and not to bury the lede or anything, but there’s a podcast coming. I started talking about it on Twitter a while back, about half joking, but then I decided to do it for real. So that’ll be up eventually … when I figure it out. Again, I’m slowing things down and not trying to rush through the creative process anymore. As it turns out, it’s the process itself that interests me more than the sharing/posting/publishing part. So I’m taking my time to create it and do it well, and I’ll share when it’s ready. 😉

Peace.

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Why Creative Nonfiction Writers are Scared of Self-Publishing

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I’ve been thinking about the place of self-publishing in the creative nonfiction (CNF) world since last summer when I participated in a round-table discussion on publishing in which my perspective as a self-published blogger was not well received. Granted, I was flustered and may not have represented my point well, but it seems that while fiction writers are embracing self-publishing a little at a time, the CNF community largely rejects it and sees any writer who pursues it as naive, vain, and delusional.

There’s a belief among CNF writers that association with a traditional publisher lends us credibility. Obviously, credibility is essential to anyone who writes nonfiction. Additionally, we believe that being accepted by the publishing establishment proves our worth as writers. I don’t know why we still believe this because I’ve seen plenty of truly awful books published the old fashioned way, but we cling to this idea like a middle schooler trying to believe in Santa Claus.

The flip side of our over-valuing of traditional publishing is that we believe self-publishing devalues our work. We believe if it were any good, an editor would have picked it up or that if the writer were not so lazy, she would have shopped it around. These are self-defeating assumptions rooted in intellectual classism, which tells us someone Up There, some overdressed academic in a sky scraper is a more qualified judge of our work than we are.

This may be vain of me, but I disagree. It’s true that writers get attached to our favorite sentences (no matter how awful they are) and everyone can use editorial help, but if we decide what’s good writing based on what’s popular, then it’s no surprise mainstream literature is going the way of pop music. Hint: Incredibly innovative and beautiful music is still being made every day, but you’re not going to hear it on your top 40 station.

Some writers will say, “aim high and work your way down,” a piece of advice I heard repeated many times at Goucher last summer. I get it. Everyone wants to publish big. Everyone wants a book deal. I want to be paid an advance and have a publisher finance my trip around the world so I can write about it, but those opportunities are increasingly rare. So you can pursue that, and that’s great because sometimes that path works out for people. But it very often doesn’t work out, and even traditionally published authors suffer from low sales numbers and awkward party conversations in which you have to explain your book to people who have never heard of it and are only pretending to be interested. So if that path looks miserable to you, pick something else.

Self-pub is equally difficult and lacking in guarantees, but it’s no less valid. Yes, there is a risk of entering a flooded market, but there’s also the possibility that your audience will find you where a publishing house wouldn’t have reached them. Maybe they wouldn’t have given your weird book a chance. Maybe “that’s not selling this year.” Maybe they just don’t think anyone cares about your story. But if you care enough about your story to write it, you should write it. And if it’s important to you to publish it, you should publish it.

If you want to be a famous writer and sell millions of books, I can’t tell you how to do that. I’m not even sure I’d want to do that if I knew how. What I do want is the ability to write what matters most to me and reach people in a meaningful way. Self-publishing gives me the opportunity to do that and the control the do it in a way that’s sustainable for me. And by sustainable, I mean it doesn’t make me hate my life. That’s goal number one.

At the end of the day, it’s up to writers to decide the future of publishing. The more we cater to “what sells,” the more mainstream literature homogenizes just like pop music. Independent musicians, film makers, and fiction writers have taken it upon themselves to do their work and publish it regardless of the nod from on high, but for some reason, the CNF community can’t do that. The only reason I can see is fear:

  • fear that you lack the credibility and validation supplied by a publishing house.
  • fear of being seen as a lesser writer by your peers.
  • fear of having to explain self-publishing to people.
  • fear that you’ll never sell enough books to make any money.
  • fear that you will publish something terrible and no one will have the heart to tell you.
  • … or that they will.
  • fear that you will negate future opportunities by marring yourself with the sin of self-publishing.

In other words, the CNF community still believes that self-publishing is not for serious writers, so I think it’s time we clear this up:

If you write and you’re serious about it, you’re a serious writer. If you write and you laugh about it, you’re a humorous writer. If you write and you’re a judgmental jerk about it, guess what that makes you. 🙂

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Little Lies: Emily and the Desert

Night ride out of the Desert
Emily scanned the horizon with a hand shielding her eyes from the sun. The land was flat and brown for just about forever as far as she could tell. She got back on her bike, revved the engine and left a cloud of dust to settle over the man she’d left behind. The vultures had been circling for a while already, and if he was lucky, he wouldn’t wake up.

She kept the sunset on her left until she hit the main road, then headed west. In her backpack, she carried her lifeline — a small brown package worth more money than she ever dreamed of. It was dark when she arrived in the tiny border town and walked into a bar, the type of place with two regulars who are both relatives of the bartender and all the other patrons are tumbleweeds. The man at the bar recognized her. Vick was good looking for a town this small, which made him the kind of guy Emily did not trust but enjoyed being around nonetheless.

Emily took a seat at a booth by herself to drink her beer. She sat facing the door and just watched, half expecting to have been followed here. Vick put a song on the jukebox. It didn’t suit her. He sashed past her table with mop in hand and danced lasciviously around it as he cleaned the floor. Emily wished she could laugh. “Fuck off, Vick,” she said with a grimace. “Today’s been shit.”

“Aw, it can’t be that bad,” he said.

“I left him out there,” she said nodding toward the door.

Vick dropped the act, looked at the door, then at Emily’s face. “Shit, really?”

Emily nodded. Vick set down his mop, poured himself a beer and returned to join Emily at her table. He sat across from her, put his elbows on the table, and stared into her face.

“He’s dead, huh?”

“Pretty sure,” she said.

“You need money?”

“No.”

“Got a place to go?”

“Yeah.”

Vick nodded, sipped his beer, kept looking at her.

“I know I did the right thing,” she said.

“Not everybody’s gonna agree.”

She nodded. “Have you seen him in here lately?”

“Yeah. He got drunk as a skunk last night and left with some shady guy from out of town. Guy said he was giving him a ride home, but who knows what happened out there?”

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Little Lies: The Pinball

vintage pinball Ceilidh knows a lot of things she doesn’t say. She sees the things others think they hide. She hears the secret motivations tucked between their words. It’s like a super power, except only she can see it. Any time she lets on that she knows these things, people act like she’s been reading their diary, or (more commonly) they vigorously deny her observations. Often, even they aren’t fully aware of the subtle reasons behind their words and deeds. Ceilidh has the advantage of interacting with a machine without being part of it. She sees the microscopic turns of the mind’s gears. She cannot see the future, but when conversing with a person, she can easily trace a line from his or her thoughts and feelings at the moment to their most likely circumstances and actions in the next five minutes or several years. The degree of accuracy diminishes at a relatively predictable rate with longer projections because she cannot know the factors that may interrupt a person’s progress, including her own.

In fact, predicting her own future is the hardest thing of all. She sees herself as a pinball in this extraordinary machine, bouncing from one buzzing, flashing, singing, zooming moment to the next. The pinball, opaque, singular, solid and silent except for the crash and clatter of its many meaningless collisions with the machine. The only thing she ever really wonders is who’s playing the game.

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Little Lies: The New Neighbor

worn stairs

The man who knocked on my door last week asked me to turn down my music. I hadn’t seen him around before. This is not a big apartment building, nor is it the first time I’ve been asked to turn down my music, so I’ve seen the faces of everyone who lives here (I’m pretty damned sure). Furthermore, this building has one rickety old staircase up the center, which passes in front of every apartment door, meaning when someone hauls a couch up the stairs, we all know about it. Assuming we’re home, that is, and I was. I’m always home. (Thanks, Obama!)

I figured maybe he was visiting one of the neighbors, probably Molly upstairs. Molly dates a lot. She brings home different guys a lot. It’s not my cup of tea, but who am I to judge? Anyway, I assumed this guy was one of hers.

Most people, though, when they ask you to turn down your music, they make some kind of face. Maybe they look apologetic like, “I’m sorry my ears are so sensitive that I have to inconvenience you.” Or sometimes they look angry like they think I’m playing music just to piss them off. This guy, though! He said, “Would you turn down your music, please?” the same way you’d say, “I’d like a soy latte with an extra shot.” His tone was authoritative, gentlemanly even, and made me feel like some kind of gross creature who should be accustomed to taking orders.

“Nah,” I said, puffing my chest. I let my chin rise in feigned thoughtfulness and shook my head as though considering seriously whether turning down the music would be a possibility. “No, sorry, I can’t.”

And could you believe the fucker smiled at me? I don’t know what I thought he was going to do, but he smiled and walked away, and that pissed me off so much I had to turn my music up even more, and Mrs. Norton came knocking a few minutes later. I had to apologize to her. I didn’t know her baby was sleeping.

That afternoon, I went across the street to eat lunch and watch people. I was hoping to come up with a new story idea, but I got distracted thinking of ways to start a conversation with the barista. My attention had been wandering all day ever since that bastard knocked on my door. The music hadn’t even been that loud. And it was good. It was sunny outside, and I’d been sitting at my desk with just the perfect light streaming down on my page, and I was starting to get somewhere with this story when this gentlemanly fucker comes knocking like he’s got no taste. He had the face of a guy who humble-brags about how his marathon training is going. But if I knew anything about Molly, she’d be bored with him in a minute, and I’d never have to see him again.

I was gazing at the door when it opened and in he walked. His eyes, I swear, went directly to mine, and before proceeding to the counter, he smiled and tipped his imaginary hat at me. I watched him order something I couldn’t hear, receive it, and exit. As he passed the front window, his head turned sharply to shoot a grin straight at me.

I tried to refocus on my story, I tried people watching, I even tried to spin the guy into a character for a new story, but I was stymied. I called it quits for the day, hopped on my bike and rode to the park.

The next day, I got up, made coffee, turned on my music (a little quieter than the day before) and started writing. With my mind fresh from sleep, I had no trouble getting started. I wrote straight through till 2 p.m. before getting distracted by hunger. I locked my door and headed down the stairs, and I saw Molly coming in to the lobby as the new guy was walking out. He stood aside as she straight-armed her way through the door, then swiftly shimmied past her to exit the building without touching the door. Molly was absorbed in her phone and did not glance up at us.

At the sandwich shop, I took a seat by the window. I sat and pretended to write for a long time, occasionally jotting down notes about the people I observed but glancing up every time I sensed movement in the corners of my vision. It paid off. He returned an hour later, empty handed.

I snapped up my notebook and the remainders of my sandwich and jogged across the street in a way that probably did not quite pass as casual. I entered the door 15 feet behind him, and paused to check my mail in the lobby letting him get ahead of me on the stairs. I could hear his footsteps several flights ahead as I mounted the bottom step. He was still walking when I reached my door on the 3rd floor. I didn’t put the key in the lock until I heard him reach the top. A door opened, there were footsteps, and the door closed again. I went into my apartment and resumed work.

The next morning, I walked out into the stairwell and peeked over the edge, up and down the jagged leg of space with the skylight at the top. Feeling confident that no one was lounging outside their doors at 8 a.m., I began to walk up. It was a stupid thing to do. I didn’t think I was going to find anything. But at the very top of the stairs was a dusty landing, which was rarely used because there was no apartment door at the top. The path ended in drywall, and pinned to that was a piece of notebook paper with symbols scrawled across it. It was like a language a little kid would make up — all dots and squiggles. Some symbols were bigger than others, carved boldly into the paper with a ballpoint pen.

The next day and the next, I saw the man coming and going from the apartment building, nodding at people he passed on the way to this or that errand. When I passed him on the stairwell, I could feel his eyes boring into me, his smile growing wider, his cheeks more insistently jubilant. The harder he stared, the more I wanted to avoid his gaze.

Yesterday, I watched out the front window for him to come back, and when I knew he was coming up the stairs, I listened. His steps were slow, deliberate and loud. At each landing, he stepped firmly with one foot, then the other, and turned slowly. I counted the flights he must have risen, and only after I heard a door open and shut, I opened my door and counted. He’d risen 6 flights total, so he should’ve been at the top floor. Obviously, he’d faked the last flight because he must have known I was listening. He probably saw me sitting by the window when he came up the street. I went up to the 6th floor. Each floor had two doors (one on each side of the landing). Apartment 6A was the landlord’s, and apartment 6B had been empty I thought, but perhaps the creepy bastard had moved in without any furniture. Maybe he was some kind of sicko dope fiend. I’d be doing the whole building a favor if I could get him kicked out. I knocked on the sicko’s door. I knocked and knocked and knocked. It was starting to hurt my knuckles. I was going to keep on knocking all day if I had to, but a door opened behind me, and I heard the landlord’s voice.

“Smithson? You doing OK?”

I froze. How to explain this?

“Uhh,” I said, shoving my hands in my pockets as though to hide the evidence of my insanity. “Sorry to be so loud, Mrs. Davis, I just, um. I been trying to talk to this guy who moved in here. He doesn’t really seem right to me, you know?”

Mrs. Davis furrowed her eyebrows at me. “There’s no new tenant.”

“Well then! How embarrassing,” I said. “Maybe one of Molly’s guys, then. Maybe I should mind my own business.”

When Mrs. Davis finally disappeared behind her own door again, I tiptoed up the last flight of stairs. There was a new note on the wall.

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