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MIDWESTERN BOOK TOUR DAYS 4-5: CRIMSON AND CLOVER OVER AND OVER

I drove back into Iowa yesterday in gloom and mist, which I suppose should/does alter my mood in a place, but yesterday I felt pleased by it. Even the part where I drove off the highway for eight miles in search of something called the Norwegian Immigrants Monument. Eventually I came to a T-stop in the road, and there was no further signage to indicate where this monument would be, which made it seem like perhaps the monument was just the space I was in, and so I had already entered it long ago.

On my first day off of the whole trip, I just went from place to place eating things and buying things and looking at things, went to the Walker on free museum day and listened to children full-throat screaming in front of Raymond Pettibon palm trees. At Minnehaha falls I walked along an elevated trail through the marshes behind a young girl wearing a raccoon tail and telling everyone who walked by where she got it from. I got lost in the sculpture garden looking for a water fountain which I could have sworn I saw on my way into the museum—it was right at the crosswalk, I thought—but which had disappeared by the time I left. Where I thought it had been, there was a large puddle, which seemed more unsettling than the thing just disappearing entirely, or having never been there at all.

Everything in Minneapolis seemed to have been designed with the maximum possible consideration and wisdom. I kept trying to put my finger on it, whatever made this place feel a little bit unlike the America I’m used to. In part, I think, I saw very few houses falling apart, few places where the sidewalk was buckled up by weeds. People on bikes, everywhere. A laundromat advertising free laundry on Fridays and Saturdays. Text translated into multiple languages in public places. I don’t know, I was just so charmed. I was so charmed that I started researching their tax structure, in fact, because it seems fairly obvious to me that none of these things are possible without equitable development and tax plans. I know every city has its problems, but Minneapolis seemed to have made significant strategic advances.

One of the most fun things about tour so far is getting to see people I haven’t crossed paths with in years, many I haven’t seen since I moved back to Pittsburgh four years ago. It’s such a joy to talk with writer friends I haven’t seen, or have only kept up with peripherally through Facebook, and to hear what they’re working on and reading. I wonder if I’m imagining it, my affinity for the upper Midwest, but there is something about going back to a place where my family comes from that really feels like something significant to me.

I don’t have anything else cute to say, except the new Lana del Rey album is really good.

Sarah Smith
MIDWESTERN BOOK TOUR DAY 3: THE QUIETEST ROOM IN THE WORLD

Something I don’t always say in these tour diaries is that it’s hard sometimes. I don’t want to say it because I don’t want to seem ungrateful, and every time I go walk into a bookstore and introduce myself as that night’s reader, it’s my dream happening. In actual fact. But I guess what’s hard about that is that when it was a dream, I could also tell myself that by the time my book came out, I would be a different person. I would never be bloated or lonely, I would never get lost, I would never hurt my throat screaming in the car about something that upsets me. But I also think that there’s a gift in this, too, and it’s the gift of seeing that getting what you want doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with being happy. Any time I’ve spent imagining the thing has only put up a blurry wall in front of me.

So yesterday was a day like that, or it started out that way. Lincoln’s streets were designed by a sadist, I say. And this is coming from a Pittsburgher, that’s a severe statement. I could not get anywhere I wanted to get to without multiple tries and obstructions, and eventually I was reduced to tears by the fact that I could not find the entrance to a fucking coffee shop’s parking lot, and I had driven 10 minutes out of my way to *~*support an indie business*~* and jfc, if there was a way to actually reach this building, it was in a dimension I could not access just then. 

And then there was this hellscape in De Soto, Iowa (birthplace of John Wayne by the way): in the gas station bathroom, a pentagon-shaped hole in the ground full of moss-green water, full almost up to the lip of the floor and just barely beginning to flood onto the tiles. Given its location inside the bathroom, I can only conclude this was pee water, but something seemed wrong about how it was right there under the floor. Aren’t there pipes for that kind of thing? And shouldn’t the pee water go someplace else? Was the cashier aware of this state of affairs? She was. She walked in a figure-eight around the register with a canister of Lysol room freshener, spraying it up into the air like it was an air horn, or maybe a gun.

But the good news: I got to Minneapolis just in time to visit the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories, also called the Quietest Room in the World. An anechoic chamber is basically a room inside a room, a box inside a box, insulated from every possible sound outside, with fiberglass wedges wall to wall inside to muffle the sound. The tour guide told me all about how they use the anechoic and reverb chambers to test consumer electronics and design rooms for elder homes that cut down on disorienting sonic interruptions. But what I really wanted to know was: what would happen to me in the quietest room in the world? Would I lose my mind? I had read about reporters having panic attacks and heart palpitations from hearing how loud the fluid in their veins could be. And that was a huge part of why I wanted to see it: Would it reveal that my body has the ultimate power to terrify me, held off only by the noisy consumer goods of the world?

My tour guide left me in the room alone for 20 minutes. With the door closed, it is dark, so dark it didn’t matter whether my eyes were open or closed. He explained that with the lack of stimulus, the mind will invent its own things to hear and see. Which doesn’t come as a surprise, of course. I don’t know what this says about me, but honestly I just enjoyed it. Although I did hear some auditory hallucinations: a radiator clanking, and buzzing flies. Which is actually pretty creepy now that I’ve written it out? And I did have a really strange somatic side effect of my sinuses seeming to pop. But it wasn’t honestly that different from any other meditation. When I came back out into the light, the tour guide seemed a little surprised that I was merely refreshed rather than rattled. Sometimes I imagine that I’m going to be more vulnerable than the average bear to things that fuck with perception, but maybe it would be truer to say that I’m actually habituated to observing and disconnecting from my mind on a daily basis as part of mental health survival. Maybe bipolar is like living in the quietest room in the world all the time.

Sarah Smith
MIDWESTERN BOOK TOUR DAY 2: ANTELOPE VALLEY PARKWAY

Iowa is really, really beautiful. I’m sure I’m biased; my family is from there, I lived there for three years, and I got sober there, too. It has always seemed to me like a vortex of some kind. After all, doesn’t it seem like all the weirdest famous people are actually from Iowa? How about John Wayne? Lara Flynn Boyle? Why is the Maharishi University in Fairfield? The field of dreams? The future home of Captain Kirk? For a place so ordinary, it sure does have a sense of the cosmic, and in particular, the wind today was pouring over the soybean fields in a way that turned the silver undersides of the leaves upward like velvet, or maybe like those lit-from-within Miller Time paintings of waterfalls that hang behind some bars.

But I didn’t stop in Iowa today, I just drove straight through and into Lincoln, eight hours with two breaks, which unfortunately rendered me a little crazed and I pulled over in a McDonald’s off of I-80 just after Omaha to eat leftover bibimbap with my hands.

Other things I saw: A convoy of longbed trucks carrying single windmill blades so big that they made me a little sick to my stomach, big veils of dust peeling off the dirt roads that run along the highway. The temperature rose from 60 to 96 by the time I got to Lincoln. The sky is so big that it feels, honestly, a bit sinister to me. The last time I drove through Nebraska, I saw a gas station sign that read YOU ARE NOWHERE, and a tornado.

Tonight’s event was less a Q&A than a regular meeting of a book club, where I was a visitor and conversational participant rather than an entertainer. I wondered if it felt weird to the regular book club attendees—like sitting down to Thanksgiving only to find the turkey in a tuxedo, talking about how it does what it does. ? It reminded me a little bit of workshop, and for the first few minutes I had that what the fuck did I get myself into feeling, but I loved the parts where I got to fade into the background and listen to them talk among themselves.

One blanket observation I can offer so far is that readers are smart and they ask questions way more interesting than anything I could come up with. And they catch my extra oblique Neko Case references. A good question is a million times better than effusive praise, to me, and tonight’s event was a buffet.

Now I’m in an utterly totemic finished basement Airbnb apartment with wall-to-wall Go Huskers bottle openers, dip trays, throw blankets, mugs, wall hangings, jackets, pens, bowls, coffee mugs, desk organizers. Is anyone more serious about their signals than college football fans?

The most practical book tour tip I have learned so far: you can rely upon the college town to have one or several poke bowl restaurants, and these are probably the cheapest and healthiest thing to eat on the road, especially in the Midwest, where the trappings of California cuisine are establishing themselves at the rate of perhaps three or four a decade.

Too tired to tie this up in a cogent way; this composition ends by going off the ski jump but never coming back down.

Sarah Smith
MIDWESTERN BOOK TOUR DAY 1: TIME IS A DARK FEELING

Every time I’m in Chicago, I think about the Stuart Dybek story “Pet Milk,” which in my memory ends with the speaker seeing two people making love in a kitchen from the El, but which actually ends with image of a teenage boy on an El platform watching the speaker and his love fucking on the train itself. In one of them, the shining erotic moment is something mysterious and endlessly unavailable, seen for a moment and made more precious for that. In the other, the imagined imagination of the boy who sees them makes the moment shine because it is endlessly unavailable to him—until of course you realize that there’s no way of saying what the boy actually thinks. The unavailability is constructed by the speaker, and it makes the actual experience feel rare. Maybe it is rare. The rest of the story suggests as much.

All of which is to say that I really like the El. Something about the scale, the psychological aspect ratio, whatever it is, about an elevated train is structurally brilliant. Which was great, because my Airbnb was actually an hour away from the three bookstores where I was to sign stock this afternoon. Hustling from store to el station to store was reminding me of something, but what?! Of course, it turned out to be the institution of America’s Next Top Model known as the go-see, where producers send young giraffe women out to five designer meetings in an afternoon, in a foreign city, with a hopelessly small amount of time. I had plenty of time, but I was delighted when one of the booksellers I got to meet also compared my afternoon schedule to the dreaded go-sees.

And now some disorganized thoughts:

I’m so glad I got to have dinner with friends, because it can be alarmingly easy to go a whole day on tour without speaking to another person. I don’t even really notice myself doing it, until the end of the day when my voice creaks as I check into a hotel or some such.

Watching Jersey Shore, I marvel at how much time Snooki spends in bed, fully dressed and made up. What does she know that I don’t?

This Airbnb has a huge TV but only overhead lighting. What the fuck is that? Only overhead lighting is like having only chairs covered in spikes. This will be commented upon in my review! Additionally, it has only hazelnut coffee in the kitchen. I find this kind of chilling.

I had a cookie made out of teff flour and almond butter, and it tasted like very nice sand. I mean that in a positive way, truly.

Whenever I see my book in a bookstore, I feel like asking it if it’s being treated well, is it happy, does it have a nice place to sit in the sun?

Sarah Smith
BOOK TOUR DAY 5-6, QUEEN JANE BELATEDLY

My daily diary format really fell off when I finally had a day with no morning Amtrak voyage. I kept meaning to get back to this over the last few days, but I’ve been back for weeks by now. And if I don’t write down anything, I’m afraid I’ll lose those two days to the swamp of broad memory. So.

Providence is the most confusing city to navigate on foot, by far, out of all the places I’ve ever been. Or maybe it’s tied with Prague, actually. But what I imagined would be a five minute walk from the train station to the hotel was actually a 15-minute ordeal which I only completed by walking with my phone directly in front of my face. This would continue to humble me during my visit; something about Google maps just goes “fuck this” in Providence. It would tell me to turn left onto a street, but the street would actually be a parking lot for a convenience store. Or it would tell me to turn stay on a road that curled ever inward like a nautilus. I mentioned this to basically everyone I talked to in Providence, and all of them seemed nonplussed, but I thought they should have been way more plussed since I, a Pittsburgher, know from bizarre streets.

In spite of my strong tendency to hermit in hotels once I’ve checked in, I walked toward the Brown campus in search of a vegan restaurant I had researched the day before. I’m not a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but I’m a fan of both things and eat plant-based meals as often as possible, and I’ve found it a good shorthand when traveling to find interesting, inventive food. It’s way too easy to eat for comfort every day on the road, but that paradoxically renders a great deal of discomfort, so I seek out vegan restaurants as my first priority. (This one, Chloe Eats, is a chain and all that, but the dehydrated mushroom bacon on the caesar salad was outstanding. But the ice cream was such a disappointment I wish I hadn’t even tried it.)

I had this odd feeling over the next few days, being lost-ish in a small town with a big college presence—a feeling so familiar it didn’t register with this place where I had never been. But then of course I realized: It was exactly like all those odd, empty weeks before grad school started, when I had moved my entire life to a place where I didn’t yet know anyone, and while I knew school would give me an easy way to know them soon, I felt myself to be apart in a way I couldn’t seem to do anything about. I remember going to Prairie Lights when I first moved to Iowa City but before I had met anyone. The cafe was mainly people writing on laptops, and I had the sense that probably at least some of them would be my classmates, some of them I would meet in the next two weeks, and my having met them would erase this brief half-memory.

But none of my half-memories in Providence would be erased, because none of them were real.

Maybe that’s what a week of traveling does. It wore some parts of me into thinness, see-thru-ness. Not unpleasantly, but I nevertheless felt sort of quiet. I went to the RISD museum, and I got lost like someone in a Kafka village. None of the bookstores I visited had my book on the shelves (which made me very sad, though I know it isn’t personal), and maybe that contributed to my sense of being not exactly real.

I was spared from the endless echoing Sebaldian thought stream by my friend Sarah, who organizes the Out of State Plates reading series, and who picked me up in a red pickup to take me to Twenty Stories, where I filmed, in a very properly videographer-ed way, an interview series for the store’s Instagram (appearing someday soon). Suddenly I was no longer a ghost! In fact, I was walking backward through a bookstore answering a question which I had already been asked and knew the answer to, but which I still struggled to respond to in the moment. Every question, I noticed myself looking up and to the right before I answered, and it reminded me of a time in this Buddhist center class called WHAT IS REAL where I and my conversation partner were supposed to do a mirror exercise. He would name something he thought was real, and I would say, “Thank you, what is real?” We traded. And then like now, I looked up and to the right before I could answer what was real. After a few rounds, he noticed me looking up before my answers and said:

HIM: You’re a liar.

ME: Thank you, what is real?

HIM: You’re a disgusting person.

ME: Thank you, what is real?

HIM: It’s pathetic that you can’t tell the truth.

ME: Thank you, what is real?

Huh! Well. It’s possible I’m one of those writers who tends to inhabit the world in an observational and ghostly posture (made only more so by the practice of writing a daily travelogue, it seems). Sometimes it’s almost like I’m trying to remember where I am rather than trying to come up with a lie. Or are lies conditioned by their relation to particular places and scenarios? Maybe only liars need to remember where they are and who they’re talking to, and everybody else gives the same answer to everyone they meet.

But I doubt it.

Sarah Smith
BOOK TOUR DAY 4: MONTAGE SET TO DOLLY PARTON’S ‘HERE I AM’

Holding a pink glitter Nalgene bottle under the one and only water fountain in Penn Station—which splatters a mouthful before going dry. And does it again. Again. Comic timing uncanny and impeccable

Surprising amount of cattails in the marshes outside NYC

Sitting across from a business boi who snaps open each section of his pink newspaper with a crack, frowns at each page for 10 seconds, and then opens another one, then throws them all away. He seems sad when I take a forward-facing window seat when one opens up, which seems to surprise all assembled

The traveler arrives in a hotel so dark and golden and curated that it could be an advertising agency—one of the ones that “tells stories” instead of anything so coarse as advertising. Snake plant, marble, brass fixtures, framed old photos

Sitting at a katsudon counter bathed in the steam from a beautiful bowl of karaage

Stricken suddenly and mysteriously with hotel blues—because of rain? Because of tiredness? Won’t realize until that night that it’s simple loneliness easily remedied by texting with friends and sweetheart. Cry some, and apply a sheet mask for that hockey goalie look

In the green room (a stock room) for that evening’s reading, appears at eye level a book spine that says SARAH SMITH FAKER. Cosmic joke! Reminded of jokes in purse

During Q&A mention that writing poetry has begun to feel distant, perhaps never to return. An angel woman in the first row with a not quite placable accent says, with calm certainty: It will come back. First believable iteration of this assertion, so warm and comforting you could lie down in it

En route back to hotel after securing a salad, step in an entire melted candy bar—a toffee chocolate bar. Who would abandon such a thing? TBH more intrigued than annoyed

The Lyft driver is blasting Al B. Sure!, windows down on the freeway, which snakes over the water in a way it doesn’t do in any other city. Al B. Sure! wishes a happy 60th birthday to Magic Johnson and reminds us all that anything is possible

Sarah Smith
BOOK TOUR DIARY DAY 3: FIG ON FIG

The first time I saw New York, I was on a band trip. We were on a tour bus, and they took us around Chinatown. I don’t know if everybody was staring out the window like it was a huge aquarium out there, but I sure was. It was a big deal to me. I was so hungry to see things. I remember seeing a lit-up third floor window where a woman was asking a cigarette into the street and looking back into the room, saying something to a person I couldn’t see, and who was she? It seemed so romantic that I would never know. I don’t know how to explain this to people who didn’t grow up in an isolated rural place, but to me, there was something forceful and magical just about seeing a thing, a person I had never seen before. And so Manhattan was like a drug and a movie at the same time. I pressed my face to the window, but I was also afraid of it.

Other times I went back to New York in the years after that, it was the same way, except I gradually came out from behind the glass. But not entirely. I treated every appearance in New York as if it were a role I had to prepare for exhaustively, polishing my costume with panic and dread. Panic and dread because I would realize every time that I had failed to become the person I would deem cool enough to walk around in Manhattan. It felt kind of like cramming for a test I knew I wouldn’t pass. And, honestly, I sort of felt like that all the time, but New York was the place where this truth was most painfully obvious. I lived to be mistaken for a local.

But the city retained its fantasmagoric perfection. Everywhere I looked was poetry. Everything was beautiful. Even these browning carnations in a plastic bucket, even this woman with a fanny pack and ungainly shoes. A door painted green, two men leaning out of the back of a truck, a store that sold only electrical cords. Only other tourists were except from my rapture. Them, I couldn’t stand. Look at them, not knowing where they were. Look at them, staring at everything. Appalling.

Something changed when I went last September for book business. I hadn’t been there in 10 years, not for any particular reason—I had just not had much of a reason to go. I still am, and might always be, a traveler who strategizes every trip with a capsule wardrobe and a carefully considered portable skincare regimen (Virgo walking!) but I didn’t feel like I had to swiftly become somebody else before I could set foot there. And I didn’t. And that was totally fine. I was just like, there. In the same way that I was there when I was in other places. I didn’t feel like I had my face pressed up against a movie screen. And it surprised me to discover what a loss that was.

Obviously, it’s not entirely a loss. I’m so grateful that I don’t treat my entire life like a test I’m going to fail. It was exhausting, and I find that I get more and more unbothered (less bothered?) every day, practically. But there was something about that distance I had imposed between myself in the world which magnified it and made it sparkle. And I was sad to see it go. I had been looking forward to it! Instead, it was all these Boost Mobile stores and Subways and Duane Reades, and the people walking around were people. They didn’t look like an endless scroll of street style photographs. It made me a little sad. It was like I had taken apart a favorite toy.

I know that Manhattan changed a lot in that time, too—I don’t necessarily think this entire transformation happened in my head. It seems like big swaths of Manhattan have been replaced with strip mall. And I didn’t have an iPhone before. I didn’t have a little window of atomized consciousness to stare into during every slack second, and I didn’t have an easily consultable map, and sometimes I think it’s not just that iPhones are distracting, because they also make it possible to not really pay attention. Who cares what this street is called, I can see this blue dot that is me moving in space? What’s this restaurant? Is it good? How many stars? There’s so much less to figure out.

Anyway! I gave a reading at the beautiful Books Are Magic, and I have to say, it still just amazes me that people I’ve never met come to my readings. In regular, non-book-tour life, most of the readings I’ve given have been populated by around 80% people I knew, and it’s so fucking crazy to look out and see people I’ve never seen before. And they ask such good and interesting questions during the Q&A! It is hugely humbling, and this reading was no exception. And my friend Tony did me the tremendous favor of asking such fascinating questions during our chat—you know how a good question can be better than a compliment? It was like that. (I think it was recorded, so I’ll let you know if it’s viewable soon!) And then we got ice cream at a place that had somehow read my dreams (tulsi chocolate chip, fig on fig!), and I bought a huge bottle of San Pellegrino at a bodega, and probably looked like some stranger from my own movie.

Sarah Smith
BOOK TOUR DAY 2: A PILL CAPER, A RIVER TO LOVE

Well Hudson sure put on its best blue eyeshadow for me, babe. The weather was crisp and blue and chilly in the morning, and I was so totally charmed to be able to walk from my dear friend’s heavenly guest suite (featherbeds dude) to a lunch place that was in one of those hotels that could be in Austin or Norway or Palm Springs or or, and I kind of love those hotels and also hate them. Like, thanks for all this oat-colored porcelain and this bowl of green APPLES. But also, thanks for knowing that I would want a Persian frittata on your menu, because that happens to be exactly what I want. It’s uncanny, how those hotels know what I want. Maybe that’s why I find them so uncanny. We walked around, seeing the docile herds of modernist chairs sequestered in picture windows.

And then we retired to Hallie’s house (huge half-circle couch covered in linen and just jfc I love her house) where I began in earnest to work on my two projects for the day: making an Instagram post for Belletrist showing off some of my book faves using pix I shot before I left Pittsburgh, and trying to figure out how to get an emergency refill of one of my prescriptions, because I am apparently living proof that if my life is unfolding a little too smoothly, I will figure out how to bring the party anyway.

I’m making it sound a lot more chill than I felt about it, of course, because maintaining public OK-ness is a fucking obsession of mine, and especially right now as I’m trying to act as the corporeal representative of my good friend Book, who I want everybody to see and to love. And also I guess I tend to forget sometimes about bipolar because most of the time, I’m taking care of myself in all the needed ways. When she’s well she’s really, really well, and when she’s bad, she’s awful.

And honestly, sometimes I do just resent it, the fact that I have to think about these things, be careful about sleep, be careful about coffee, pay attention to what I’m eating and am I getting into a bad thought in a way that’s going to keep me up all night, and am I suddenly walking into the invisible noose that hangs from the ceiling and the sky. And how much it can flip my day upside down if I make this one little mistake. I try to be so careful, and sometimes I still can’t do it. But I guess that’s good because I need to ask people for help, and even though asking for help feels like having a bag of snakes dumped on my lap, I know I need to do it sometimes.

I’m feeling a little embarrassed today of how I overreacted, resulting in my amazing boo mailing me my spare pills at not a small cost, and just feeling embarrassed about how I need, and how I get when I need like that.

When I say stuff like this, people usually tell me that it’s just human, that I’m just having a human reaction. And I always want to say, like a teenager, I never asked to be human!

Anyway/also, I got to see beautiful writer friends who feed some crucial part of myself just with their presence, and now I’m in a train looking at the Hudson scrolling by, listening to this kind of perfect Ondas album (the most Pixies-like thing I’ve heard in awhile, even though it’s kind of only doing the quiet part of the quietLOUDquiet formula. And my life is so beautiful that it shocks me, even as a human.

Sarah Smith
BOOK TOUR DAY 1: NUDGED LINEN-WARD

I left Pittsburgh at 6:30am because I come from upper Midwestern stock that places a colossal value on that mysterious state known as “making good time,” which happens when you time your drive to avoid rush hours in cities along the way OR when you get up so fucking early that it just seems that way. (If anything, I lost time because I was determined to go to a Sheetz in Wilkes-Barre for gas, because I thought it might be the last time I saw a Sheetz on this trip at all, which is one of the more Western PA-type things I’ve ever done, I think.) (Fuck Wawa.)

I had an excellent time listening to podcasts and zoning out to a beautiful whispery album (Emily Alone by Florist), watching buttery early fall light stripe the mountains. I know it’s August, but the light change has already happened, my friends, but I’m not opposed. I also started Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, kind of an uncanny selection since Less is all about a past-his-prime writer stitching together a series of dubious conference invites and literary occasions to take a trip around the world to celebrate (or maybe more accurately, obscure) his 50th birthday. Uncanny because I’m on book tour, and while there aren’t exactly people holding signs bearing my name at airports, it’s also not that far off. Newness, movement, places, meeting people, being in a place just long enough to notice a single mysterious detail, like the way vineyards plant a single rose bush at the end of every row of grapes.

So anyway, I got to Hudson in the afternoon, early enough to change clothes and visit friends from Greene County who recently moved here. Their house looks something like they had taken their old house and pushed it through a prism. It was them and looked like them, even though it was completely different, and you know, this might be one of my favorite things about people. The way you can put someone in a new house and watch the rooms take on some resemblance so that you see their face everywhere.

You can feel money in Hudson. It’s beautiful, but a lot of places are beautiful. Greene County is beautiful, but nobody is taking such exquisite care of the barns. That sounds really obvious, and I don’t really know how else to register it. It’s so strange to go to places like Hudson or even the Laurel Highlands, where people pay thousands of dollars to get married in a barn and rhapsodize about the natural beauty but always think: Why is there no wedding industry where I’m from? Why can’t people in Greene County make bricks of cash by hosting ceremonies for city people who still think deer are cute? But I’m not wondering, of course. I know why. It’s because money doesn’t live in Greene County. It leaves. And nobody wants to pay premium to get married where the money leaves.

Which is not to say that Hudson isn’t beautiful, because it’s really something. It’s a rural facade with movie stars hiding behind it, kind of like how in Joshua Tree you overhear that Jason Momoa just bought a house on the sleepy road you drive past every day. It’s nature, but everyone has chosen to be there. The chosen bucolic is an experience, and somehow that experience is externalized onto the round bales, too. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that money is pretty. We ate dinner at a place called the Bartlett House, with marble-top tables and dark wood and panes of glass, the right kind of eggplants, etc. You know what I mean. The pretty iridescent little eggplants. Ha. In spite of how much I’m trying to accurately class its beauty, I can’t help but notice that I’m a little bitter about the contrast. I am, a little. Sometimes, in places like this, you can feel that the bill—the real bill—is being paid elsewhere.

Now, the reading was great! My friend Hallie organizes Volume, and it’s such a fantastically well-tended event. There is no feeling of precariousness, no worry about whether people will show up, no worry that you’ll have to wrestle with a mic stand all by yourself. It was such a sweet place to begin this book tour, and especially in the company of a friend who was a good friend when I was a tiny bit of a basket case at MacDowell. You know, it’s a really special friendship that begins with the yikes part (in my case, a conviction that I had face cancer because there was a new mole on my lip, about which I was hysterical) instead of just like, having the same opinion of Mad Men or whatever.

And I forgot how much I love talking to other writers after a reading. I just really, really love it! Which is lucky for me, because here comes a lot more of that.

I chose to wear a sage green linen jumpsuit to the reading, and like a perfect comedy, I saw maybe 8 other women wearing linen jumpsuits at the event, and passed many others in boutique windows on a two-block walk to the venue. This is probably because Instagram has nudged us all linen-ward in a series of near-invisible suggestions, right?

Sarah Smith
HER EXISTENCE

A strange thing has been happening with my reading habits lately. I used to read the way I imagine a swimmer would cross the English Channel: whole days given over, big muscular pulls through the water. And I loved it. I loved the feeling of that devotion, and I could sometimes read a whole novel every day.

More recently, though, I’ve hardly been able to do more than dip into a novel here and there. It’s probably reasonable that I would be so easily distracted right now, what with my good friend Book joining the world, making new friends, bringing vast currents of excitement into my life. Maybe I won’t have access to the right kind of quiet for a little while, and I’m completely fine with that. Part of getting OK with my life has been letting it be a certain way without trying to fix myself, and this interval is probably some very important interior metabolic process that I won’t see the purpose of until a few years have passed.

Instead of finding myself absorbed in fiction, however, I’ve been soaking in interviews with writers. It started when I began binging Between the Covers and Other Ppl as primary house-cleaning/lawn-mowing accompaniment. And it continued when I was sourcing material for my Here Be Monsters class, gathering bits of interviews with Joy Williams and Jamaica Kincaid and Flannery O’Connor. And as a result, I keep finding myself drawn to is the idea of a writer’s humanity as their body of work, beyond what they do in their books. I don’t totally know how to explain this entirely. Yesterday I was listening to Vi Khi Nao’s interview on the Between the Covers podcast, and when she talks about CD Wright’s influence, she talks foremost about Wright’s compassion as a teacher. And when she talks about the influence of Forrest Gander as a teacher: “Just being with him.” In the syllabus for one of Vi Khi Nao’s poetry classes, she lists as a text “CD Wright: her existence.” I deeply appreciate such clear and beautiful ways of talking about what a writer means.

Maybe I’m thinking about this especially this morning as I learn that Toni Morrison has died, and I’m trying to reckon with the fact that there will be no new words from her in this world. I know that’s not entirely true—books are not fixed, and their newness is refreshed by the newness of the world changing in relation to them. And writers have almost always produced more work than the world has seen, because that’s just how it is. But the first place I went when I saw the news was to an interview from the Paris Review’s Art of Fiction series, because that’s where I feel the loss the most: not in the constructed public amphitheater of a book, but the glimpses of regular life that show in interviews.

What treasures people are. I didn’t always see it this way! I think when I was younger, I really liked the idea that books could go out into the world as a shield. They could be a proxy for the writer, or whatever I wrote could stand for me, be better than me, hide things I find difficult about myself. And maybe growing up has meant getting tired of hiding? But for whatever reason, it just seems colossal to me, the work that a writer does to be the person who writes what they write or sees what they see. Like they’ve built an instrument in themselves, and the instrument is so rare and beautiful and temporary.

Sarah Smith
BIPOLAR II-SDAY: JUST SAYING HI
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I just read an article on the Root that shifted something for me. It’s called “Being Bipolar Means Always Having To Say, ‘Um … what’s your name again?,” by Danielle C. Belton (who is also the editor of The Root btw). It just cuts right through to me, and not just because I really do have a hard time remembering names. The thing is, when I was diagnosed with bipolar II a few years ago, I didn’t really have any way of relating that information to myself. In fact, it seemed a little comical how quickly the psych doctor diagnosed me. And I was still not so convinced. I had been reluctant to make an appointment in the first place because to me, from inside the shitty castle of bipolar depression, the real problem was that I was irredeemably bad, and the very fact that I was breathing air that somebody better could use seemed like a good reason to kill myself. In fact, the day before my first appointment with the psych doctor, I called my mom and said, “You know, I think I’m going to cancel that appointment tomorrow. I figured out what’s wrong with me. I’m just really, really stupid. That’s all.”

I had a narrow idea of what bipolar could look like thanks to 1) flat-handed, lazy, manic pixie dream girl-esque characters in movies 2) the fact that every serial killer or baddy in a true crime show is “diagnosed” (even if it’s only suspected by others) as bipolar 3) perzines I read in the ‘90s where bipolar was described as a flattening cosmic force that made it impossible to function in any basic way at all. I couldn’t possibly be bipolar; I went to work on time. I never struggled to hold down a job. I had two masters degrees. None of these things seemed to square with the image I had, so it was hard to think there was any help for me. I only agreed to get help when a friend a lot like me (sober a few years, especially) said, “You sound like me. I’m bipolar, and I always went to work on time.”

Anyway, back to Danielle Belton: She brilliantly lists some of the seemingly small-stakes things impacted by her bipolar, including not being able to remember names due to being mentally all-hands-on-deck for dealing with all these other daily fears which intrude. Or having a debilitating response to an unanswered text message. And for real, I share these experiences and have never considered their possible connection to bipolar. I feel this huge relief, just from recognizing some of myself. It gives me good evidence to treat some of those aspects of my life as impersonal, i.e. not evidence that I’m pathetic and need to be fixed. And for that I need all the evidence I can get, because my brain will manufacture evidence to the contrary, even when I discipline my thoughts. I can imagine this is even more powerful for black people with similar brain issues, given the disparity in stigma, even stigma against therapy.

On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think of myself as bipolar, in part because I have really good access to treatment, and writing full-time gives me the tremendous luxury of being able to do all of the things that keep me well (btw it is a LOT of things), and the ability to deal with depressions without being afraid that I’ll lose my job because I can’t stop crying. And in some ways, I’ve treated that invisibility as a sign of health. (Plus you know those esoteric circles I trifle with are all about “don’t identify with ur disease” and that makes some sense to me, too.) But I still slip back into thinking that I’m desperately fucked up when duh, bipolar might explain some of what’s going on.

More than that, though, Belton’s article opens up this way that being transparent can help somebody else, because damn did she help me today. (Especially about the text messages. God, the panic attacks I have had over no-response text messages, combined with the ruthless self-shaming for being so sensitive.) And me, I’m the queen of seeming FINE. Or better than fine, fantastic. And I am fantastic, but it isn’t because my smile doesn’t crack. Thank you, Ed-in-Chief Belton, for writing this.

Sarah Smith
FEAR INVENTORY: NOVEL RELEASE IN 2.5 MONTHS EDITION
  1. Nobody will read it

  2. Everybody will read it

  3. Women my mother’s age who make me illogically cranky will pat me on the arm and congratulate me in ways that are no doubt genuine but will feel judgmental

  4. I’m not nice enough

  5. A book exactly like mine except more life-affirming will come out the week before

  6. A person will ask me, “what is your book about?”

  7. A person will say, why didn’t you put me in the acknowledgements section?

  8. A person will compare myself or my subject matter to Lena Dunham (though given the self-centered orientation of this list, I couldn’t entirely object)

  9. Some random person on Goodreads will give it one star because they don’t like goats, childhood, girls, or something else in the book

  10. A woman my mother’s age will say “well … it certainly is interesting

  11. I will prove myself too fragile to receive any criticism, and respond to well-meaning questions with teenage hostility

  12. I will be unable to physically withstand kindness of any variety, especially compliments

  13. What if my uncle reads it?

  14. What if that one ex who stalked me for years reads it?

  15. What if people mistake my having written a book as a tacit invitation for their opinions of it, for life?

  16. What if nobody has any opinions?

  17. What if every time I see someone reading or praising a book that isn’t my book, I’ll think, why aren’t they reading and praising my book??!! And then I immediately hate myself for this thought, and explode with shame in the form of a sour cream and cheddar Pop Chips binge in my car, in the parking lot, because I’m additionally ashamed that I binge on Pop Chips and not even a real honest junk food, so I resist bringing them into the house because that would make the whole thing more real, somehow

  18. What if this and all the above finally out me as the craven and self-obsessed individual I actually am? And I am expunged from my communities, failing to have a home as such, I die in the wilderness …

OK

Well, anyway. This list is embarrassing, but I bet it’s not unique to me! Still, it’s so easy to start thinking that everybody else is always charming, gracious, and centered when they’ve experienced something that I’m experiencing. There’s this false piety around gratitude that I really hate, but I feel like it’s the more socially acceptable thing to say when you’re in the middle of experiencing something you’ve worked for coming to life—it goes something like “but of course this is a blessing I don’t even deserve, and I’m lucky just to X Y Z.” Nuh uh. I do deserve. And part of deservingness means taking in the whole experience instead of overriding that with some mandatory sweetness. That’s something I’m really grateful for.

You know what’s really funny though? If I read this list and someone else had written it, I would want to read her book so bad …

Sarah Smith
AY CARIÑO, AY MI VIDA

Unfortunately, I did exactly with this blog what I vowed not to do—I stopped writing when I encountered something I didn’t know how to write about. But I also have to assume that I say something when I have something to say (is there any other way to do it??), and hi again.

I just started reading Megan Boyle’s Live Blog, the extension of the autofictional impulse to the absolute furthest place. It’s a transcription of everything eaten, consumed, thought, in totally engrossing detail. I’ve only read 20 or 30 pages (this book is a doorstopper, as they say) and I’m so compelled and challenged by it. I realize that the texture of lived life is so unbearably sweet to me, and I love it when someone will just let it be stated the way it is.

Here’s the thing I had a hard time writing about: the anarchist marching band I’m a part of traveled to Nogales, AZ, for an annual border action at the invitation of Casa San Jose, a rad nonprofit who so amazingly had invited us to partner with them. The trip was bewildering, hard, emotional, something to process beyond my typical thoughts about books and scenes from life. We played in a parade that crossed the border checkpoint, we played at the place along the border where Jose Antonio was murdered by border patrol, we played at a vigil outside the Eloy detention center, in the middle of the desert, and the detention center was lit up bright white like the only thing in the world. I drove three days there and three back to transport our big instruments, the first time I had driven more or less entirely across the country, and the first time I saw the slow fade from the billboards in the Midwest to the insanely beautiful purple cactus shadows in the desert. I didn’t say anything about it because I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, and I was afraid of claiming some kind of fucked-up activist cred, and I was afraid of performing a rage that might somehow cancel out the real one, or sock puppet everything. Kind of in the same way that I don’t always love to take pictures: I don’t necessarily like stepping out of the moment and into the camera. Maybe I’m afraid that if I do, the camera will show you something I don’t like. It’s almost certainly the case. Any wall I’ve ever made is all about that.

And part, too: I had the thought over and over that maybe that story, the story of the trip and the border, wasn’t mine to tell. But now I see it much better: the part of it that’s mine is mine. The part that isn’t mine is not. Declaring the whole thing off-limits is, I suspect, another effect of white supremacy. It’s harder to figure out what’s mine than it is to turn away and go elsewhere.

So here’s the part that’s mine, I think, or at least the part that’s coming forward now: We prepared a bunch of songs for this trip, in great part because we wanted to have material to match the mood of all of the places and events Casa wanted to attend. That’s how I saw our job: we bring the music with Casa and take their lead on when and how much to be present. Anyway! We learned songs with messages specific to the events, and we brought forth anything we had that could match the sentiments of the vigils and protests. But we also learned love songs. Just straight up love songs. I didn’t really understand why.

It turned out that we played the love songs way, way more than we played anything that was “on message.” It meant something better than a message for everyone to sing together. Especially the protest at Eloy—the people who had been there in past years told us that it felt safer to be there, even when the guards started getting edgy and the sun went down, that there was a way to sing together. Singing is a way to be together. It makes me think about playing music a different way. Instead of just wanting to play a bunch of solos or a bunch of juicy, scene-stealing parts, I get to be part of the boom box that makes a way to sing together. I cry with gratitude when I think about that, in part I think because it is such a relief to be useful. I never thought about love songs being useful, but I’m so grateful that they are.

Now that I’ve said it, I can’t figure out why I was afraid to, but I guess it’s like that sometimes.

I have more to say: about the desert, about Live Blog, about the way my cat twitches in her sleep. I never trust the impulse to make things too beautiful! Thanks for reading this.

Sarah Smith
INFINITE BECKITUDE

I am Becky. Becky c'est moi. 

There is no way to un-Becky myself. 

I can't pile up my traumas and marginalized identities on one side of the scales and put my Beckitude on the other side and un-Becky myself that way. No matter how much energy I spend calling out other Beckys, declaring them problematic, shaming them, I don't get an inch away from being the Becky that I am. If I tell people that Get Out was my favorite movie of the year, I'm still Becky. If I'm quoting Kimberlé Crenshaw and Facebook sharing Kiese Laymon and visibly reading Citizen in public (gimme cookies!), this does nothing to un-Becky myself. No matter how many hours I spend canvassing for Black women running for school board and state rep and on in my district, I do not even begin to pay off the balance of my Beckitude. Who claps the loudest at the Roxane Gay reading? Come on, you know Becky is on it. To the contrary, the more I curate public displays of wokeness, the more I reinforce the Beckitude, because being Becky means obsessing over being good, and being good means looking good in public, in my imagined version of what other people think about me. Beckitude is a void principle. It can swallow, invert, or grow within and split the husk of anything I do, even if it's good and, fuck, especially if I mean well. 

#YesAllBeckys

I say this because I've been thinking about a moment recently, a moment in which I did some very subtly Becky shit. A few weeks ago, I was invited to read at the Chautauqua Institution as one of the writers included in Challenges to the Dream, an anthology of winning entries from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Awards. The contest is run by my alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and open to Pittsburgh-area high school and college students, and it's been around for almost 20 years. And I appreciate its existence, because CMU made it clear that writing about race is a moral obligation, and the concept of "race" does not belong to people of color while whiteness is a removed, neutral default. And that we can do something fruitful for each other when we hold space for a kind of uncertainty in poems and essays about race. 

Chautauqua, if you've never heard of it, is sort of a physical embodiment of what Jess Row calls "white dreamtime." It started as a summer camp for Sunday school teachers, flourished as an unaccredited but nevertheless rigorous public education program which mostly benefitted wealthy white women in the time before higher ed opportunities were available to them. And it continues, more or less, as a place where wealthy white people can soak in the atmosphere of humanitarian learning across many disciplines, attending lectures and watching ballet and discoursing on truth & beauty. And goodness. (White goodness, implied but not voiced.) It is a locus of Beckitude (although properly speaking, it usually serves Becky's parents). There is an almost foundational sense in institutions like this that there is such a thing as white goodness, and that such a thing could exist in this world. That's how I understand the "dream" part of "white dreamtime," anyway. And Chautauqua is it. (P.S. we can sub "supremacy" for "dreamtime." They are the same.) 

Anyway. I was jumping out of my skin the whole time I was there. All around me, blithe white people riding bikes by the lake, having conversations at that slightly performative volume so others can know that they know about, I don't know, Candide or whatever. My mind was spinning out the whole time. I was going around with my mental clipboard, issuing demerits for clueless whiteness left and right. I succumbed to the delusion that I can un-Becky myself if I put distance between myself and this big glittering playland of white dreamtime. I was a fucking mess. I was up to my neck in shame and trying to thrash and flail away from it, because it is also a truth of Beckitude that I didn't ask for it, and because I didn't ask for it, I sometimes get caught up in the errorful idea that I can undo it, unfeel it, hide.

Also, it's worth saying that I was there at least partially by the invitation of one of my very dearest and most beloved friends, who has taken on directorship of the literary programming there, and who is standing in this difficult position, driving open a space for writers and work that shows white dreamtime what's happening in the unsleeping world. And I was being kind of an asshole about the difficulties of this place, sniping away incessantly. But like, THEY KNOW ALL THIS. And I was acting out my supremely self-centered Becky psychodrama instead of being present with my friend and supporting them the way I could have. Because guess what? People in deep white dreamtime are not fucking happy about it when you try to wake them up. 

There's another layer to this instance of Beckitude I wish to unpack, and this is the subtlest of all. I didn't even register it until I was driving home, and it's been chiming around since then. After the reading, when we took questions from the crowd, one older white man asked something I'll paraphrase as "How do I begin to talk about whiteness without offending anybody?" I'm pretty sure he was directing this question at me because the speaker in my poem invokes dog whistle phrases and subjects of racial stress. My answer was something along the lines of: "Conversations, even well-meaning ones, can do violence to people of color, so it's important to consider educating myself as a white person my first obligation. And this means other things beyond reading books. It means noticing who is in the space you're in, who is not, who is comfortable around you, who are you comfortable around, who is in the grocery store? Who is in the newspaper? Where do the bus lines go in your home? Where do they not go? And it also means cultivating the capacity to listen more than we speak." 

Don't get me wrong, I'm glad I said all of that, and I think as extemporaneous public speaking goes, it was a pretty decent answer. But I did leave something out, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I should have said: "It's hard. It's humbling. It requires fucking up and bearing awareness through the discomforts of fucking up. And I'm in it with you." I should have said: "I don't know how to dismantle white supremacy without causing more harm, but I know that ignoring it is infinitely more harmful." I should have said: "Shame is the enemy, and purity is the enemy, and the idea of 'getting it right' is the enemy."

Or I might have shared some of my own sources of shame. If I were really, really brave, I would have done this. Maybe I would have said that I've noticed within myself a kind of hypervigilance in public places around people of color. I've noticed a microscopic internal flinch, sometimes, when I'm sharing public space with a Black man, and then a manipulative, overly friendly ("friendly") engagement that I imagine might cover that. And then a wave of shame, because I don't want to be this way. And a wave of shame because this flinch, I think, cannot be so different from the thing that pulls the trigger when a white cop reads a dangerous situation where there is just a teenage boy running away. I'm not trying to be dramatic here, but I know these things are related. I see it in myself, and sometimes the best thing I can do is witness it and hope that everyone around me is safer when I am able to be awake to it at least. 

But I chose to answer this question differently. Ever so subtly, my answer adopted the tone of a scold: I know this, and you don't, and you should. Shame on you, Becky. I'm not like you. I know better.

Well, fuck that. I am Becky, and Becky-shaming is possibly the most canonical Becky-type shit. 

& there is no end to this essay.

***indebted to the work of Rachel Ricketts’ course Spiritual Activism 101***

Sarah Smith
STYLE
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One of the moments of novel publishing I have most daydreamed about and looked forward to is here: My first round of copyedits, and my book's style sheet. 

A style sheet is an in-house document copyeditors create to designate special use cases, unusual spellings, and frequently occurring formulations in a text. It helps standardize, ensuring that the edited text retains its oddities. It also acts as a reference for little-known names or technical details, because when these things dwell outside the realm of general knowledge, it's all too easy for a proofer to unwittingly add an error. When I worked on the copy desk at The Austin Chronicle, adding an error was the only real sin a proofer could commit.* Pretty much everything else seemed to be fair game (or at least that's how we played it).

A press has house style guidelines, and publications like newspapers typically have a book-length style guide, but each novel is its own horizon, and so the style sheet is a reference appendage. But more than that, it's a topography of all the weird shit in the novel. It's a map of all the jagged places where the words sound funny and kind of wrong; all the people who are famous to you, the writer, that nobody else cares about; all the brand names you have seen fit to include; all the fucky ideas you have in your poor head; and all the beauties, too. All the words neatly ushered along within the purview of the Chicago Manual of Style are like smooth pebbles in the riverbed. The style sheet is a list of all the places where you could cut your foot open. It's like a picture of your soul.

%%%

Word List

à la carte, AAA, AFL-CIO, afterward, Aldi’s, Alpine goat, AMBER Alert, arsoning

back-to-the-landers, backward, barefooted, Bath & Body Works, Bell’s Grocery, BLTs, Burchinal’s General Store, burned, Burns Delite, Butterick catalog

café, Camel lights, Caramello, Carhartt, chaga mushrooms, Chardonnay, Cheetos, chickie, chilblains, Cholula (hot sauce), coast guard, Coca-Cola, CoGo’s, coo holes, Crime Stoppers, Crystal (hot sauce), Crystal Light

D. Ferd Swaney Elementary, dammit, domme mom, doughnut, dove (not dived), downward, Ducati, Dunkin’ Donuts

earth, EBT, Econo Lodge, exposé, Eye of Horus

feint-stepped, FFA, fortysomething

Gebe & Skocik Tire, GED, Giant Eagle, Gilbey’s Gin, god (except God when Klink refers to it), goddamn, godsakes, good-bye, gossipful, GPS, grade-A (adj.), grandmomma, Grapplerettes, gray

Hamburger Helper, Hapsburg Empire, headscarf, Heaven Lake, helixed, Hockaday School, home ec, HVAC

I Ching, ID, IKEA, internet, IV

jacklegged, Jacktown Fair, JanSport, Jell-O, Januarys, jiggaboo

KGB, Kiko goat, Kmart, knee-walked

lamé, Law & Order, Lawn-King, leaped, LeBaron, Life Flighted, little Washington, longwall mine, lookie-loos, luft(ing)

Mason-Dixon Line; matryoshka doll; Met, the; milky-sick; Miller Time; mucus

Narcan; navy; Nessun Dorma; New World Order; New York Times, the; Night Train; nutso

O’Gillie’s, OD’d, OK, Op-Ed, Ormus gold

pachinko, pahoehoe, Parade magazine, pâté, Pecjak’s, pom-poms, Popsicle, Post-Gazette, POW/MIA, PennDOT, post( ), PSA, psych eval, PT Cruiser, pu-erh tea

Q-tip

Ravens Rock Overlook, religion-y, Roman Empire, RSVP’d, Rush’s Grocery & Video

sad-o (adj.), schatzilein, SCI Greene, Scientologist, see-through, Sheetz, single-A football, Skype, slippy (?), Sno Balls, Social Security, starfishing, Steak-umms, sweat-pinched

thirty rack, T-shirt

undergrass, upward, USA Gold (cigarettes)

VFW, visoring

Walmart, wangs, website, West Greene High School, Western civ, WIC, wi-fi, Wildman Run Road, Wite-Out, WPIAL, WVU

YouKandy.com

zithering

%%%

I think of my relationship to Greene County, where the novel is set (and where I was born and raised) as prickly, if not outright hostile. So it surprised me a few weeks ago when a friend said, "Well, it's clear you love it, from how you write about it." Shit, that was not clear to me at all! To tell the truth, I thought of writing about home in a sort of devious "now they'll sleep" way. A "do you love me now that I can dance" way. I was going to punish everyone by telling the truth! But when I first read this style sheet, I totally got it. No matter how else I feel about where I'm from, I have given it my attention, and I have represented it to the best of my ability. I've accepted it. I stopped pretending I was from "outside Pittsburgh." I have loved in the sense of holding some kind of reverence, even if the story that I'm telling is possibly unflattering.

My favorite writing teachers were not necessarily the ones who praised the most or the best. In fact, some of the more praise-happy sometimes seemed to be phoning it in: Great images! Great job! Wow! So interesting! Not to turn down a compliment, although I suppose that's exactly what I'm doing. I felt the most honored by the teachers who had clearly given my work the best of their attention, even if they were telling me that my scene delineation was mushy, my arch characters a clear attempt to hide myself in irony, and that I should perhaps know what I was trying to get at. (Maybe this is why I find copy edits flattering and humbling rather than critical! God bless you, copy desk, for cross-referencing every gas station and small town in this book.) 

One of my writing teachers took the risk of telling me that I was writing in a superficial, witty way because I was afraid of inhabiting the physicality of my characters, and that I could write something that made the reader feel if I was willing to try to write characters as visceral, actual people. (A tall order, since "in my body" has often been the last place I want to stay.) I doubt he could have had any certainty that I would react well to that suggestion. I would be terrified of saying something similar to a student. It's so much easier to soften up what I want to say. It's a risk to tell the truth.

Being specific is an act of love. Looking is an act of reverence. Seeing what's actually there is an act of love. 

* I have never, ever forgotten the press day where I struck the capital "Is" in a headline to make it lowercase; those li'l words are usually downcase in headlines, and we had been at work for something like 11 or 12 hours, and I thought I was making a brave last-minute catch until my co-homie Tofte flashed the page in my face yelling "NUH-UH. IS IS A VERB. IS IS A VERB. VERBS ARE ALWAYS UPPERCASE IN HEADLINES, Jesus Christ." It was like I had tried to steal her car.

 

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Sarah Smith
LENS

I grew up in a rural place, and these were the main things you could do: get coffee at Yum Yum Tasty Donuts; play pool at a convenience store/hoagie counter/video rental place owned by the same family who operated the funeral parlor next door; attend very, very occasional punk shows at the VFW, which were really just the guy you knew from C++ class playing Sabbath covers. There you go. There were other things. Those were the main things.

When I was a sophomore, my friend Scott and I took over the literary magazine. We were its editors, but as our sense of publishing ethics was severely lacking, we also made ourselves its primary contributors. When you look at the table of contents from any of the issues we worked on together, it's mainly our names with a few other people thrown in for propriety. Many spreads combine his art with my poems, or vice versa. We collaborated on these things well

At some point, we started taking days to drive around and take pictures of things. I think we might have been taking pictures for the magazine specifically, or maybe that happened after. There isn't a lot to do in Greene County, but there's a lot to see. There's the burned out bank vault in Littleton. There's railroad tracks, saucepans full of gray dish water in kitchen sinks, one lonely red shoe on a pile of shoes in a thrift store. In the summer, so much green it could smother you, so many cicadas you can't take a step without crushing one.

I had my dad's Pentax, and I forgot what camera Scott had, maybe a digital camera we borrowed from school. But it was often film that we shot on, all guesswork. It sounds so strange now to take a picture and not know what it looks like. Either way, this activity was total magic to me. Suddenly all of these things around us, and all of this space which did not seem to have much of a relation to me, or me to it, felt like it was collaborating with me, showing itself in some way, getting my attention so I would take its picture. 

I didn't really know how to be from where I was from. My family wasn't from there, and my parents were lefties with homemade bread and Midwestern accents. I picked up the feeling of being not quite right. Eventually I wielded it, and sometimes that was a good thing, but sometimes it was just arrogance. And I had always felt somehow spoken to being alone in the woods or fields. But the places where the other people lived felt forbidden somehow. Taking pictures was a way of being there. Still at a distance, I know. But I needed a way of being there, and also a way of being curious, and I discovered it on these days when we would drive around, just looking. 

We still do this, actually. As a matter of fact, almost all of the pictures on this website Scott and I shot together on a day where we drove around Pittsburgh, just looking. We can take a lot more pictures now that we have iPhones, of course. It's funny, comparing the files, we'll find all of these shots that we both took, that we framed in the same way. In the stream of everything, everything, everything, we single out some of the same moments as funny and interesting. Maybe this is why we're still friends 20 years later. Maybe this is part of why everybody loves Instagram: It says so much about someone, where they put the frame on the world. 

I've been thinking about this because there's a moment in Tommy Orange's There There, where Dene Oxendene is on his way to interview for a grant which he wants to use to document Indian stories in Oakland. On the train, looking at the graffiti, he sees a tag he used sometimes in middle school:

"Back at school Dene wrote Lens everywhere he could. Each place he tagged would be like a place he could look out from, imagine people looking at his tag; he could see them seeing, above their lockers, on the back of the bathroom stall doors, on the tops of desks. In the bathroom stall tagging the back of the door, Dene thought about how sad it was to want everyone to see a name that wasn't his, a name written to no one, to everyone, and to imagine them looking into it like it was a camera lens. It was no wonder he hadn't made a single friend in middle school yet."

(Bubs, we're not even on p.50 of this book when this moment occurs, so are you getting why everyone loves it so?)

tip jar

There's so much spinning and pulling in this image, I could think about it all day. It was one of those times that you read something incredible, and then you know all of these new things you had never known before, except you know them so suddenly that you can't see them all at once. Something about this character and this passage I recognize so much it's like I heard an actual TWANG in my head when I read it. I love how Dene insists on a kind of power and everywhere-ness, using a word, a name, to make objects into portals. Not just portals, though: a lens works differently depending on which side of it you're on. By labeling bathroom stalls and desks and train windows, Dene is taking a picture of the person who reads the word, but he's also rendering a portrait of himself: I'm the person who needs the world to be like this. I'm the one who sees you and needs to be seen. I'm the one who doesn't know any other way to say it.

I get why Dene calls it sad. I think when I was taking pictures in high school and writing in white-out pen on the straps of my backpack, I thought it was sad, too. (As a matter of fact, once I wrote "SAD" on my flip-flops, the day we climbed a fence to swim in somebody's pond, and I mean, that's so sad it's actually really good and funny to me now.) I thought nobody was on the other side of those gestures, as maybe properly speaking, they were not yet. But it's also fierce, and fierce things touch my heart because they point toward all the reasons fierce is necessary. It's magic. See, now somebody is on the other side of that gesture, because you're reading this. And Dene, I'm the one looking into the lens of your camera, even though you might only live in a book.

 

 

Sarah Smith
THE COELACANTH: PATRICIA HIGHSMITH ON THRILLER WRITING
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Oh, Patricia.

I sometimes get a kick out of reading writers' "this is how you do it" books, especially when they were written in the golden era of magazine publications. To hear tell of it, the writer could bolt down a story or two in a garret somewhere, take a spin around Positano, go ice-skating in a picturesque season, and be back around to moping up a draft of something new a mere month later. Nobody's charging a submission fee for a lit mag that nobody reads except in contributor's copies. Writing is a job, a proper job with regular intervals of work, rather than a personal discipline so frequently lonely it attains a whiff of the spiritual. Sounds fun!

Patricia Highsmith, by her own assessment, isn't exactly the acme of fun, but I love this book Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction because it's so well leavened by her obvious enjoyment of the work itself. Sometimes writers, myself included, characterize the process of cultivating a germ of interest into a story and a character and an inevitable end as maddening/grinding/unfun, but not Patricia! She sounds actually quite cheerful to do the work, and it's a joy to read this book just for the glimmer of a soul happily at work. (Happily at work reality-testing the ways a man might be poisoned, OK, yes.)

My favorite quotes:

"I create things out of boredom with reality and with the sameness of routine and objects around me. Therefore, I don't dislike this boredom which encroaches on me every now and then, and I even try to create it by routine. I do not 'have to work' in the sense that I must drive myself to it or make myself think what to do, because the work will come to me. I get the same pleasure from making a table, a good drawing, occasionally a painting, as I do from writing a book or a short story. This boredom is a happy thing, and I am scarcely aware of it until an idea for a short story or a book strikes me. Then I realize how much more interesting I shall find the world I enter when I start working on this idea. I am already entering that world when I start thinking about the development of the idea. Perhaps most writers feel this way."

"As for life's little difficulties, they are myriad. What writer hasn't had to work with a toothache, with bills due, with a baby sick in the next room or the same room, with the in-laws visiting, or at the end of a love affair, or with the government demanding the filling out of endless forms? I have scarcely a morning that doesn't bring something in the post that could be called psychically disturbing."

"Criminals are dramatically interesting, because for a time at least they are active, free in spirit, and they do not knuckle down to anyone. I am so law-abiding, I can tremble before a customs inspector with nothing contraband in my suitcases."

"There are some writers who in their first drafts write too briefly. I have met one. But for that one, there are a hundred who will write too much. There is a tendency to overdescribe and even overexplain. In describing a room, for instance, it is not necessary to describe everything in it--unless the room is full of interesting incongruities like spider webs and wedding cakes."

"One need not be a monster, or feel like one, to demand two or three hours' absolute privacy here and there."

"Why worry about point of view? You might as well have a spittoon in the corner talking next."

"A writer is usually asked by the publisher to read his book in galley proofs. These are narrow and a yard long, difficult to handle, and most easily read in bed."

"Like boxers, we may start to flag after thirty, that is, not be able to do on four hours' sleep any longer, and then we begin to grumble about taxes, and to feel that the aim of society is to put us all out of business. It is then good to remember that artists have existed and persisted, like the snail and the coelacanth and other unchanging forms of organic life, since long before governments were dreamed of."  

THIS ONE WEIRD OLD TIP: How I Quit Smoking

I'm celebrating a little over six months without a cigarette, my babes! Apparently every single stop-smoking article was written by a doctor, a nun, or a bucket of Twinkie filling because they contain absolutely zero in the way of a meaningful, inhabited, been-there set of observations about kicking. I swear, half of these articles are just a list of reasons you shouldn't have started smoking in the first place, and they list benefits like "fresher breath," as if that means anything to a smoker. (P.S. It doesn't. Smokers can't smell anything. Well, until the nasal cells begin regenerating, and then you realize that your favorite T-shirt smells like a hesher's beard and it's very difficult.)

Anyway, I found it annoying that all of the articles about quitting were so sanctimonious and unhelpful, so here are the things I did that helped. These are all specific to me, and may apply in only limited ways to others. It's also worth noting that I spend a lot of time every day doing what I need to do to stay sober and take care of my mental health, and all of those things are the bedrock on which anything else rests. Anyway:

1) I didn't quit until I was quit. I know that will sound facetious, but I mean it. I had never attempted to stop smoking before January 10th, 2018, because actually, I didn't want to. I loved smoking. I really, really did. I didn't care about anyone's guilt trip, and I think that was an excellent decision. I wasn't one of those people who quits 45 times and bums cigarettes and steals sips. I loved it, and I stopped when it was time to stop. You're done when you're done, and that's a mysterious internal process. I'm glad I enjoyed my disgraceful, antisocial, filthy habit to the max.

2) I threw it all away. My turkey wasn't ice-cold; I've been on Wellbutrin for my bipolar II since last winter, and it blunts the dopamine payoff of smoking (which is why it's also marketed for smoking cessation). When my psych doctor prescribed it, he told me it might help me quit smoking, which I thought was real cute because, as we've established, I was the most unapologetic smoker of all time. But he was right, and after a few months, I would sometimes forget to buy cigarettes, which had previously been unthinkable. 

I share that just so you know I'm not some utter cold-turkey badass. But my turkey was pretty chilled, and that meant I threw everything away all at once, lighters and ashtrays and even the full pack I found in an old jacket. 

3) I pretended the air was a cigarette. So actually, you could skip this whole list and just read Allen Carr's Easy Way To Stop Smoking. I swear, that book pulls some kind of hypnotism/neurolinguistic programming feat. I don't want to spoil it for you, but halfway through reading it, I was so excited to quit smoking that I speed-read the last part. Carr does an excellent job explaining, among other things, the nature of addiction: that there's no such thing as just a drag here or there, because the chemical itself initiates the need for more. This is why nicotine gum/patches/vaping are doomed to fail. They just keep you on the hook, but in a self-deluding way. Carr points out that a smoker thinks the cigarette feels good, but it's really just a brief return to the homeostatic good feeling nonsmokers enjoy constantly. In other words, the smoker agrees to spend all of her non-smoking intervals in a slightly depressed chemical state. The good feeling of smoking a cigarette is really just a return to how everybody else feels all the time. 

I was so taken with this idea that I decided to use it whenever I felt sorry for myself. I pretended that instead of smoking these puny little things, I had graduated to a big, beautiful cigarette the size of the whole world, and I took a deep breath and enjoyed it. 

4) I chewed cardamom pods. Allen Carr is wrong about only one thing, in my opinion: He suggests that you not use any kind of replacement thing like gum or lollipops. I'm sorry, but that seems delusional. I get why it makes sense to skip nicotine gum, and I get why you might not want to forever eat a raft of ice cream every night, but I'm going to chew some damn gum. 

However, gum gets really gross after so many pieces, have you noticed? Someone told me that it was good to chew cardamom pods or licorice root, something about how they cause a brief spike in blood sugar that replicates that of a cigarette. I haven't really needed a replacement for months; I just like chewing cardamom pods now. 

5) I listened to the music I was into when I started smoking. I have no idea why this helped me. But at some point, I happened to listen to Parallel Lines, and it reminded me of my dorm room, the T-shirt I had made with the iron-on letters that said I AM UN CHIEN ANDALUSIA, the guy I had a crush on who got into pointless fights, I don't know why any of this would matter or work. Maybe it helped me remember a few days from the time when smoking was not yet an established part of my identity. All the way back to when Atom and I would smoke a single clove together every day, with great ceremony, determining the place and time of the next day's at the close of the present one. How much easier to walk out of one of those days and into a day of no cigarettes at all.

6) I got one of those apps. You know the ones. They show you how much money you've saved, and how many "hours of life" you've recouped (dubious, but OK), and they even give a running tally of how much time you've spent not smoking. That one really got to me. All those extra minutes sitting in the car in the Target parking lot, reading Twitter or whatever? They turn into days of something else, and I loved knowing that. Also, opening an app is a nice bridge for any antsy moment that would usually involve lighting up.

7) I created elaborate oral hygiene routines. I had a seemingly permanent stain on one of my front teeth from smoking. It was never more embarrassing than those occasions when some kind person tried to tell me that I had lipstick on my teeth. "No," I would have to say to them, "that's a stain, a stain on my face. Thank you for trying to help me, but plainly, it is impossible." I didn't really think this was ever going to change, but I started swishing coconut oil every morning, flossing, and putting activated charcoal powder on my teeth to settle and pull out the stains. All of which works! I have such beautiful teeth that the dentist seemed a little disappointed he didn't get to lecture me.

8) I replaced road trip chain-smoking with a two-pound bag of baby carrots. I actually hurt my jaw from chewing so much the first time I took a daylong drive after I quit. It was truly humbling: Here I am, an addict so compulsive and helpless in the face of a tremendously mundane experience that I can't entirely trust myself to use carrots safely. And eating that much raw vegetation is hard on the digestive system. Still, it's something. 

9) I didn't tell anyone (at first). I know that people who love me mean well, and want to keep me safe. They think they can do this by protecting me from the more painful parts of the world, and they think they can protect me by telling you how bad, difficult, or impossible my stretch of road is about to be. Even people who had never smoked loved to tell me that smokes were harder to kick than heroin, which I guess they had heard on 60 Minutes once? It's super annoying! Less annoying but still kind of weird, other people who had quit smoking decades ago would say something like, "I still miss cigarettes every single day," or something else unintentionally discouraging. I know, it's meant to be relatable. But common struggles aren't necessarily mandatory. I got two days under my belt before I told anyone, and it was one of the best things I did for myself.

10) I spent the money I saved right away. A recently quit friend let me in on this, and it's brilliant. As much as you might want to stockpile your unspent dollars for some chichi thing, it actually helps more to enjoy a slightly nicer than usual sandwich or cup of coffee, day by day. Spending an extra $8 on yourself every day makes an immediate impact on quality of life, and unlike all those rapidly accruing health benefits, it's actually tangible in a way I could appreciate. I bought myself a yearlong membership to the Carnegie Museum of Art (which includes the Warhol and the science center). It only took me a week to afford it, for one thing. Now I can go to the Hall of Gems and Minerals whenever I want, and smoke a beautiful cigarette the size of the whole world. See?

 

 

 

 

WHEN I GET THAT FEELING
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I picked up my trombone again. It's been 10 years since I played, and even then, it was more of an accent in my then-band Gay Science. RIP Gay Science. We had a song called "OMG the Sun," which I still think is utter brilliance. We had a song called "Big Peach" with the chorus "Big peach, baby you're working so hard." We had a song called "There's So Many Types of People" where the first line of the lyrics went "I'll be the whale, and you be the whale watch." (Although I also, mea culpa, performed all of our gigs in a shitty handmade feathered headdress. I disavow that idiocy of mine. I think I've been blocking out all memories of that band because I'm so ashamed that I would pull such appropriative bullshit, but blocking the memory doesn't actually do anything useful. The best I can do now is own it and make it a lesson, be problematic and work through it. Here I am! At your service.)

Anyway, a few months ago, I went to PIttonkatonk, a brass band festival in honor of May Day and easily, clearly, 100%-ly the best thing that happens in Pittsburgh every year. I hadn't gone the previous two years because I'm talented at keeping myself away from things that light me up. But this year I went, and this year I found out that a friend plays tuba in Pittsburgh's May Day marching band. Listen, the love among low brass players is real and forever, so I started talking to him about it, and when I mentioned that I used to play trombone, he encouraged me to come play with them. It's taken a few encouragements. Even after I went home to extract my trombone from the teenage memory parade of my former bedroom, it's taken me weeks to open the case, pick it up, and try a note. 

I'm not sure what I was afraid of. Maybe afraid that I wouldn't remember how to do it, that I wouldn't even produce a tone. I was afraid that I had possibly damaged the slide the last time I played it. I was still drinking then, and my blackouts were getting more unmanageable. I realize this might sound strange to someone who never drank alcoholically, i.e. what would a manageable blackout look like exactly? But I blacked out regularly, almost every time I drank, for about ten years. For some of those years, they almost felt like a tide that came in every night, impossibly pure and total, and I learned to live with them. And sometimes I would have these shitty shadow memories the next day, like seeing a friend's face bent up or remembering getting into a fight with a stranger at a picnic table by the river. The day after my last gig, I thought I remembered stoving the trombone slide on something after losing my balance--trombone slides are excessively delicate--and I was sure I had ruined it, basically. I've been sure all this time that I ruined it. I've been afraid to look, to see whether this is so.

This is what I said when I opened the case for the first time: "Oh, my babe! My babe!" (Since this is how I typically greet my cat, she came running downstairs, confused, because what other entity could deserve such a greeting?) The fit between the bell and the slide was stiff, and the register trigger was jammed, but the slide itself was just fine. A little dry, but damaged in no way. The first few notes sounded fuzzy, and I couldn't get my bearings in the air chambers at first, but then I played a few staggering scales. And then I took out my old fake book and played jazz standards, and I had not ruined it. It was all still there.

I realize now, of course, what this was: a surrender. Playing music was a huge part of my life. Sometimes, in college, I practiced for six hours a day. I had a permanent ghostly outline of a mouthpiece on my lips. But eventually, it became more important to put my thumb over any part of the picture that demonstrated what my drinking was really like, and I would jettison even these truly precious parts of my life to keep drinking. Even after I stopped, my shame was so powerful that I was willing to put aside this huge amount of joy in order to look away from damage I may have caused. It's been more than four years since I took a drink or a drug, but still, what if I discovered that I had really fucked up this beautiful instrument? Well, here's the beauty: finally, I wanted that joyous part of myself back badly enough to look at the damage. 

No damage. Isn't that every spiritual teaching, all of the time? There is no damage. Nothing is broken, nobody needs fixed. 

 
 
 

p.s. Apparently Gay Science has become a more popular band name since our day, because I found a Bandcamp page for a latter-day Gay Science from Kansas City, MO, whose song "Back Pain" starts "Jesus sucks/suck my dick." No trombones either.

I BLAME IT ON YOUR LOVE

I had been talking with someone the week before about Jesse Ball's writing process. Apparently he does a lot of reading/walking/thinking for a year, without putting down anything more settled than notes. When it's time to write the book, he works for two weeks. In an interview with David Naimon on the Between the Covers podcast, he elaborates that he thinks of this process as an analogue to the way that classical musicians rehearse, then continuously perform a piece for an audience. Maybe recordings of the performance splice together multiple days/takes to produce an artificially clean track, but the performance itself, in its most timebound form, cannot be edited, only prepared for.

Last week, I taught an intensive novel writing seminar for high school students. They take "intensive" to heart, these kids. They were slamming through drafts in every moment of downtime, or they had already written the next five novels in their series and grown bored of the one we were about to workshop, or something. No doubt this was precious time for them, as I got the sense they were usually squeezed to perform in every other possible academic or athletic capacity (one of my students had to leave early to run the steeplechase), and no doubt they've been rewarded for goal-oriented behavior. But they were writing so fast, it almost seemed like they were trying to stop breathing. 

One of my colleagues at the seminar told me about Jesse Ball's rehearsal technique while we walked around in a state park after closing class for the day. I guess we were talking about what is a novel for--is it for getting a book deal before you turn 20? Is it worth rushing through the writing process? Is it even possible to do so? I've been thinking that maybe the real art of the novel is in the ocean of time spent contemplating your own concerns and finding something to say about them, and the novel itself is a husk of that experience. I've been telling myself this as a way of letting it not matter that much, how my novel does when it comes out next year: If the attention is the primary art form, my book is already a perfect success, as is every book.

And then, I pick up Aja Gabel's The Ensemble, which I read so enthusiastically that at one point I noticed I had begun carrying the book into the kitchen with me while I made tea, just so I wouldn't have to put it down. It chronicles the relationships of the Van Ness string quartet from student days to Juilliard residencies, and if there's any book taking on the idea of art behind the art, here it is. I took violin lessons as a child. I don't know how serious I was, exactly, but I did progress all the way through the Suzuki Method books and play in competitions. (In the world of the Van Ness, this would make me a rude beginner, but it was fun to recognize the physical realities of rosin and neck pain.) 

One of the quartet's fundamental conflicts pits the individual talent against the compelling synthesis. In the earliest scenes, a pompous soloist is already trying to poach Henry, the group's prodigy. Everyone knows he could conjure a brilliant success on his own, but much less sure about what their own careers would amount to without him as a part of their composite identity. But this isn't actually central to the novel's concerns. As much as I'll always love a turn of the A Star Is Born story, artistic success is secondary to the pursuit of intimacy, and intimacy not limited to romantic relationships. It seems really fitting that in the coda, the book switches back to a moment that precedes all of the other events: the quartet's first practice ever, a messy, fun rendition of a Suzuki etude, in which they grasp, in an instant, the outlines of each other's emotional continents, long before the rest of their time together fills in some of what they already know. 

It's such a beautiful idea--that it's possible to truly see someone in the first instant you meet them, and also possible to continue seeing them for the first time, for the rest of your life. I don't know how this relates, exactly, to my idea about the novel as a husk of a cosmic experience or Jesse Ball's rehearsal/recital, but they feel connected in a way I find interesting. In all of these is the possibility that process is an illusion, travel and achievement is an illusion, and there is a constant floating architecture within the moment. Is it music? What is it?