Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thesis and Thesis

"Writing your first novel is like trying to swim underwater to a place you’ve never been before, without a map, while learning to inhale water and exhale whale song, while writing your first novel about trying to swim underwater to a place you’ve never been before, without a map, while learning to inhale water and exhale whale song." - Afterword, The Covenant of Salt

I write 6-12 hours a day. In the afternoons, I write something new or make substantial revisions. At night, I deal with formatting, references - the bookkeeping. In the mornings, I go over everything I did the previous day and make notes. It's a good schedule but oddly demanding. I set a morning alarm so I don't lose valuable writing time. I'm starting to see the allure of writer's colonies and writer's retreats - between the heat and the post-fire reconstruction next door, it's difficult to write in my apartment. 

This is my second thesis manuscript. The first one, Please Save Dog Named Slim. Good Dog. will probably never get finished. That thesis advisor quit abruptly. This happens - faculty move, leave academia, go on sabbatical, etc. However, I'd worked on this particular person's literary journal for two years. She was a demanding boss, but she had a fervor about the work I loved. I took several of her classes and composed Please Save... under her direction. When faculty quit, they typically gather their grad students together in small groups or one by one and break the news personally. They make arrangements to transfer supervision to other faculty or some sort of distance supervision, completely do-able online.

My first inkling came when a neighbor asked if I knew anything about the FOR SALE sign outside of my advisor's beautiful house. A few days later, the Department Chair sent an email - my advisor had suddenly quit. Other students and I quickly realized that the reason for her fervor wasn't the work. It was early tenure, which she received a few months before quitting. Getting tenured here raises her salary at future employers. My two years of work and study became a salary negotiation chip. I shouldn't say became. This was no last-minute decision. This was carefully planned, probably from before I even entered school. So I probably won't finish the project - I refuse to let her add one more item to her vita off my back. The thesis process brings back memories; I suppose that's why I'm thinking about her today.

My current advisor - Michael Martone - is the shiznit. Odd, I never expected an Icelandic writer to know much about writing. He's smart but a little hard to work with due to his accent. He gave me some invaluable advice: keep writing (my translation. It sounded like "meek fighting" or "deep biting", but he made hand gestures that I choose to interpret as writing-esque.) After this thesis manuscript is finished, I'll take a short break and start on my next project, Okahika Stories. Okahika is an odd place where good things happen, sometimes. 

In the next few weeks, I'll visit Austin (TX), present my work in Oxford (MS), start teaching, prep for fall classes, submit and defend my thesis, GRADUATE, and oh yes, GRADUATE. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wince: George and Trayvon @ Lunch Ticket

My lyric essay "Wince: George and Trayvon" is the featured Creative Nonfiction piece in the current edition of Lunch Ticket, available now. So go read it now. I promise its not boring, or angry. Not too angry.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Review: Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale

Occasionally I review books. Check out my first one for Southern Literary Review.
"In this, Lynda Rutledge’s first novel, God commands ailing Texas widow Faith Bass Darling to sell her Louis XV Elephant Clock, an heirloom wedding ring, a banker’s rolltop desk, a rare Dance Dragoon pistol, 44 signed Tiffany lamps, a portrait of Jesus with moving eyes, a $10,000 bill, a family Bible, an old love letter, and perhaps the famous Bass Mansion before she dies.
Faith Bass Darling’s mind is “sundowning,” a symptom of middle-to-late stage Alzheimer’s disease. Short-term memory fugues transport her from the present to the past and even to the future in the form of visions. These fugues disturb her enough that she repeats a personal mantra, “My name is Faith  Bass Darling…I live at 101 Old Waco Road in Bass, Texas…Today is December 31, 1999…My great-grandparents were James Tyler Bass and Belle Bass…My parents were James Bass II and Pamela Bass…”  Long-term memories haunt Faith as well, especially those pertaining to the deaths of her husband Claude Angus Darling and her son Mike...[read the rest here]

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Boy Who Climbed His Mother into Heaven

"Kweli [Journal] celebrates cultural kinships and the role of the literary imagination. In this shared space, you will hear the lived experience of people of color. Our many stories. Our shared histories. Our creative play with language. Here our memories are wrapped inside the music of the Muscogee, the blues songs of the South, the clipped patois of the Caribbean. Here in Spanish, Zulu, Tagalog, a useful past is lying down next to an ailing present. Our prose, poetry, and visual art are full of viatamins and vernacular. Listen. Grow. Lift."

 I can't tell you how often someone asks me "what should I read?" We have a gadzillion lit magazines out there. Read one. Read two. Discover new writers. I've read Kweli for awhile now - their work is amazing. AND, I'm extremely happy to say that I'll join them in an upcoming issue. "The Boy Who Climbed His Mother into Heaven" has been selected for publication in an upcoming issue. More details later: read Kweli now.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

National Scholarship Outreach Conference

Liberian child soldiers exchanged weapons for tuition under a postwar amnesty. These at-risk students often engage in disruptive classroom behavior. With government- and NGO- sponsored training in research-based positive behavior management strategies, Liberian teachers decreased rates of challenging behavior, optimized student learning, and fostered emotional health.

I'm very happy to announce that Heather Hatton and I will present "Positive Behavior Supporting: Training and Implementation in Postwar Liberia" at the 2012 NOSC Conference in Tuscaloosa, October 1-3. Heather will present her research using observational data gathering protocols to identify, diagnose, and support dysfunctional classrooms. I'll present my experiences using Positive Behavior Support in postwar Liberia.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Update: Wince

"Wince: George and Trayvon" has been selected at the featured creative nonfiction essay in Lunch Ticket. I'm honored, but also saddened that 13 year old Darius Simmons was gunned down by a neighbor while taking out the trash. Unlike Sanford, Milwaukee Police arrested the shooter immediately and charged him with first-degree murder.

I'm glad my essay will be read by a wider audience: I wish I'd never had to write it.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Southern Writers, Southern Writing Graduate Conference

Anyone in Northern Mississippi should come see me read two of my short stories at the Southern Writers, Southern Writing Graduate Conference in Oxford, MS. This conference is an offshoot of the annual Faulkner & Yoknapatawpha Conference and features some of the best writers and poets in the South. I'm told by respectable people that this is a big deal. I might even wear a tie, which makes this doubly special.

Friday, July 13 @ 6:30 pm
Creative Panel / Wine and Cheese Reception
Off-Square Books on the Oxford Square
Oxford, MS

I'll keep my reading selections a surprise, but it's me. Expect violence, sex, religion, and death. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Big Bobby Wilkerson

The good folks at Echolocation (U. Toronto) might, might publish one of my favorite stories, The Big Bobby Wilkerson. I wrote it a few years ago, then shelved it when I went to Liberia. I returned and realized TBBW fit into a larger project, along with Bell and Cut Mary Somewhere in the Sugarcane and The Smell of Rain. All of these stories take place in the same town. I think these will become a series, maybe even a collection. We'll see. Right now, I'm honored that Echolocation is considering one my works.

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Wince: George and Trayvon"

One the last day of my childhood, I decided to go visit my best friend Jon Zimmerman. He lived a few miles away, but the suburban New York weather was pleasantly cool. I don't remember what I planned to do at his house, but I imagine something of the "hang out" variety. I walked over and cut through a neighbor's yard as I (and every other kid in the neighborhood) had done for years. Jon wasn't home. I started to walk back home when a police car approached me. The neighbor lady had called the police saying I was trying to break into her home. I explained that I wasn't, but another car arrived. And another. More and more arrived until seventeen  vehicles blocked the entrance of the street, including unmarked cars and the Fire Chief. They questioned me for about an hour in the street, but refused to believe my story until Jon arrived home and vouched for me. I left New City the next day and have rarely returned since. The episode was humiliating: to this day (over 20 years later) I still get upset thinking about it.

When I wrote What I Want to See, I remembered that day and wondered how close I came to Trayvon Martin's fate. I also wonder how close my daughter has come. I don;t think I want to find out. I wrote a lyric essay about Trayvon: Lunch Ticket (Antioch University) will publish it in June.

[Note: Since this original post, we're changed the name to Wince: George and Trayvon. Publication is set for June 15.]

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Leaky faucet

I moved into a lovely old building just off campus in mid-September. The kitchen faucet leaked. I told the maintenance man that it leaked.

They came to fix my faucet on Monday. Monday as in February of the following year. But fine, they came. They couldn't find the part my faucet needed, so they decided to replace the entire faucet. But I had no cut-off valves under the sink. I reminded them that I reported the lack of cut-off valves in, I don't know, September. So they  - the maintenance man, his uncle, the assistant maintenance man, and the industrial plumber who helps out - cut off the main water supply. While the uncle installed cut-off valves, the maintenance man returned to Loew's to find a replacement faucet. He returned and discovered the replacement didn't fit. He made another trip to Loew's and found that no modern faucet will fit my elderly sink. Solution? Replace the old sink with a modern, faucet-fitting version, and replace the cabinet under the sink when the stress of removing the sink shatters it.

I may have pizza tonight.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012


I read a disturbing report today. I hope this isn't true, or some misinterpretation of events. In short, the Susan G. Kommen for the Cure Foundation has a rule against giving grants to non-profits under investigation. This rule has led them to cut funds to Planned Parenthood, under investigation by a lone congressman at the behest of anti-choice groups.

I witnessed the Kommen Foundation's efforts in Liberia. Cuttington is just a few minutes away from Phebe Hospital. The hospital has only a handful of doctors and a cadre of nurses. Some of the nurses are dedicated professionals. Others are young women who see nursing as the best job opportunity available in a male dominated society.

Phebe has a state-of-the art mammography machine. An administrator showed me the machine on a tour of the facility. It sat on a wooden pallet, still wrapped in plastic. I could see a book of installation instructions on the console. I asked, naively, why the machine wasn't hooked up. The genial, exhausted administrator explained that a mammography machine required professional technicians to install and calibrate the machine, a constant supply of power, trained technicians to operate the device, film supplies, processing equipment, and film technicians to develop the pictures, and an oncologist to interpret the results. Phebe, he explained, had none of these, but feared saying "no" to an American charity would hurt future efforts at donation.

By the time he'd explained all of this, we'd come to a row of four cargo containers. Each was filled with similar donations, pricey and feel-good stuff that had little value in the field. Phebe desperately needed diesel for its generators, painkillers and anesthetics, and anti-malarials, and trauma supplies. We don't have colored ribbons for those. 

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sleeping in Bed

Last night, I slept in my own bed for the first time since 2009. I don't remember the last night I slept in my old bed at the Strode House caretaker's cabin. I often avoided sleeping in the actual cabin, preferring the climate control of the Strode Studio. But the last time I slept in my (chosen and owned by me) bed (a comfortable, flat, cushiony mattress-and-frame contraption) must have been November of 2009. My brain had already landed in some romantic version of Liberia, but my back dearly loved the firm-yet-gentle Denver Mattress I'd slept on for two years.

The bed at Cuttington was...flat. Ish. Liberians, especially Kpelle, are typically much smaller than me. Their furniture reflects that. The men who engineered my bed never considered someone my size. The wood was heavy, but the joints were flimsy. Once it came apart, splintered, and rusty nails shot from the wood every which way. When Maintenance came to repair the bed, the carpenters chuckled and patted me on the back. They thought I destroyed the bed in the throes of passion, and nothing convinced them otherwise.

I slept at Cuttington, on the thin beds at St. Mary's Convent, in a guest house in Voinjama, in the comfortable beds at Kendeja and the Cape Hotel, on various American hotel beds, on transit seats (airplanes, trains, cars) and on my parent's couch. Then I moved back to Tuscaloosa. Back to school. I bought a futon and slept on it for five months. I've slept on futons before - back in the 90's - and my backside is just not as springy as I remember. But finally, last night, I found a mattress. My dear friend Monica and I lugged it upstairs into my apartment. I tossed the futon pad onto the futon frame in the living room and remade my bed.

Andy: I'm gonna sleep tonight!
Andy's back: Mmmmaybe not.

I couldn't sleep. Apparently I've become accustomed to sleeping in someone else's comfortable bed, or on my own uncomfortable bed. The bed felt too nice, too comfy. I'll try again tonight.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I took a conscious break from publishing when I entered grad school. I'd had a good track record, but I felt like I was always writing the same story over and over. I wanted to write something else. 

But something else happened. I got afraid of publishing. That little voice that says, "its not good enough" followed me about. I said I was taking a break from publishing but the truth is I couldn't submit my work. To anyone. I was terrified of...I don't know what. Rejection? I've seen plenty of that. Non-acceptance is a better word. I feared I'd made a mistake. I feared that the "new" writing wasn't as good as the old writing. But it's all me, it's all my writing.  

I finished off a draft I'd started before my trip to Liberia. The story is looney, about a farmer who grows a daisy  from his hand. This story became part of a series, a series I need to finish about fairy tales and the South. So here's hoping - I sent Bell and Cut Mary Somewhere in the Sugarcane off to a journal today. I'll send The Big Bobby Wilkerson off in a few days.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Covenant of Salt

I used to blog. I used to blog almost daily. I even got sorta-kinda famous for my old blog, Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse. A (much more) famous writer at a conference once ID'ed me as half of the epic "I will not ride in a hearse" conversation. That was a long time ago.

Since then, I've grown up a bit, gained, lost, learned, forgotten, traveled, and returned. Lately, I've had an inexplicable urge to blog. I took a break from blogging when I entered graduate school. As graduation looms, I feel the urge to blog again. Graduation! I took the long way around.

Right now I'm reading Graham Greene's Journey Without Maps, a travelogue about his trip through Sierra Leone and Liberia. Liberia. I spent two years there, teaching at Cuttington University. I mostly taught composition, but also American Literature and West African Literature. I enjoyed teaching West African Lit, but it was my smallest class. Most students (and their parents) dismiss African literature and orature. They prefer reading Faulkner and Keats over Achebe and wa'Thingo. So my students left in favor of other faculty who taught a western-centered literature course. But some stayed.

My current manuscript - The Covenant of Salt - concerns my experiences in Liberia. Teaching, reading, listening, eating, traveling, healing, fighting, talking, waiting. When asked if it's fiction or non-fiction, I say yes. Any book about Liberia has to do more than one thing.