Pola said she needed space and time, then gave me the hat she had finished crocheting, which, I noticed, after she left, smelled exactly like comfort and security and happiness and her bedroom, so I stuck it in my bureau, so cigarette smoke or fresh air couldn’t take that away from me. One of the trucks from my job swerved and flopped onto its side, and there was footage of it on the internet which I watched over and over while intermittently looking at the truck itself standing upright in the garage with a gouge instead of a windshield. Whoever sequenced the stoplights and walklights at this intersection, did it with the intent of killing people. A part of me wishes I believed so deeply in astrology that I could explain this all away with mercury retrograde. When I listen to music in the shower in the morning, it’s often interrupted by alarms I neglected to turn off, and I get frustrated, but then I feel a little guilty because they were only trying to do what I instructed them to do, so then I think, “I’m sorry for getting upset with you. You were just trying to wake me up.”

 

Late into the night, the traffic lights outside start to blink, as if to say, “Go ahead, do whatever you want, I don’t care.” It’s easier to apologize profusely for my room being messy than it is to clean it. I remember two times I called 911, although there may have been others. The crossword clue was: “Message written on a car window” and my first guess was SAVE ME, and my second stab was CALL ME, when the answer was WASH ME. When I was on the cusp of graduating college, I ended up in a psych unit for three days instead. Pola and I walked down the same street in different directions so that we could bump into each other to walk in the same direction and it was dark and drizzling and the headlights and streetlights didn’t help so everyone walking towards me was Pola until they got close enough and were not her until it was her. People often give me the heads up that my fly is down. As of now, I think the most beautiful song lyric is: If being afraid is a crime, we hang side by side. I much prefer phone calls to texting. I had to explain the messy details all over again when I met with a new mental health professional. I’m not sure which parts of me are worth keeping secret. The olive oil sputtered and got me, and I held my fingers and arms under the faucet so I’d have smaller blisters to deal with. Learning that the name for something that has been happening with me is OCD, has heightened my OCD. We were watching Big and Pola fell asleep before Josh Baskin returned to the Zoltar machine so he wouldn’t have to be Tom Hanks anymore. In a coffee shop, Pola taught me the basics of crocheting, and a man in a wheelchair wouldn’t stop saying to me, “Yes, that’s a good thing. Crocheting is good. There’s nothing wrong with crocheting. It’s a good thing.” For months now, Pola and I have been stealthily planting two specific mayonnaise tubes on each other’s person each time we see each other and today I found one tucked inside my Zoloft bottle and the other fell out of my hat when I got back home. My belts break at a rapid pace. I dreamt that I lost my cool at work and when I told my coworker about it, he laughed. In lieu of dinner, I ate two Ben And Jerry’s. The scab from my blister got crusty and yellow and looked like a booger and even though I knew better, I fiddled and fussed until it fell off and now the exposed skin is tender and deep red. I’m much more embarrassed when the embarrassing thing occurs in private. But there are major drawbacks to having an audience as well. I think I may have just committed the most brutal act of self-sabotage that I have ever committed in my life. While I was sobbing in a Lyft, my driver made a fatal wrong turn and, at the end of the ride, he gave me three dollars from his own pocket and said it was for making me late to work but I choose to believe it was out of compassion for the crying. I bailed on the movie with Pola because I haven’t really slept for three days. How do I write definitively about something that’s yet to be defined? I’m learning the distinctions between unhealthy sadness and healthy sadness. My phone died and forced me to listen to the things I was thinking and feeling. Cliffhangers are devices used in fiction to keep audiences hooked, beside themselves with anticipation for the next chapter or episode, and a lived life can present you with things that feel like cliffhangers, you’re left wondering what will come next, what another person is thinking or feeling, it can drive you mad, but it’s best to keep in mind that life is not a structured narrative, it happens and it keeps happening, and so I cast off my frantic anticipation and sit here patiently waiting for tomorrow without torment.

 

 

A small black bird flew directly toward my window and settled on the ledge. Which, I suppose, is a testament to how quickly things can change. I still haven’t caught my breath. On the bus, I was so captivated by an article on “How To Make Your Relationship Better” that I missed the stop right by my girlfriend’s apartment and the stop after that and the stop after that. In my bedroom, I have a bed and a fainting couch. I was worried that a good night’s sleep would skew the data of my neuropsych evaluation. I’m my truest self while waiting for someone to show up. Each time I log into my email, I unsubscribe from a different mailing list. When my depression had more of a hold, I would sometimes find myself jolted into awareness in the middle of a street by the headlights and brake screeches of a car I subconsciously wanted to hit me. I’ve conditioned myself to always smile with my mouth shut because my teeth are yellow. Sometimes, Pola and I will use the third person to talk about each other to each other instead of the second person to simulate an element of jealousy in our relationship. I insisted that nothing was wrong and tried to keep washing dishes through the nausea. When I bit off the crescent of a fingernail, I felt a rush of synchronicity. If you happened to see me on the bus this morning, please keep it to yourself. The last thing I want to become is one of those people who will hold a door open, not out of the goodness of their heart, but a sick thirst for a “thank you.” Pola and I stood by her stoop in the cold and kept hugging and our shivers didn’t matter because the abstract kind of warmth was that potent. Before leaving my apartment, I fill my backpack with all the things I may consider maybe using while I’m out. When I google a thing to make sure I use the correct term in a short story, the internet becomes convinced that I am interested in purchasing one and inundates me with images and prices. I wonder who Leslie Walton is and if she knows about the roses addressed to her that have been wilting on someone else’s welcome mat for over a week. The smoke detector went off at the precise moment the timer to flip the chicken went off as if both alarms were conspiring to force me into a crisis and see how I would handle it. In high school, I had this nasty habit of passing off art made by others as my own. As I awoke this morning from uneasy dreams, I found myself transformed in my bed into a gigantic insect. A man said “Hey! How you doing man?” while I was selecting an onion but my recognition of him was vague to none so I said I was okay and didn’t engage further. At the feedback appointment for my evaluation, I learned that there wasn’t an easy fix. After paying a lot to look at awful art, we stepped outside and the heavy rain had stopped. I swapped backpacks with Pola to give her a break from the weight but it wasn’t long before the straps cut off the circulation to both my arms. I’m sick but not sick enough to shirk responsibilities. The misdelivered bouquet has finally been disposed of. My jaywalking made a car get stuck at a red light. My headache feels like it could explode into a star. My sense of humor entails resuscitating a horse so I can make it dead again.

 

 

You’re an Artist, Keep Making Art

The realization that art could first save and then expand my life came when I was a teenager in a troubled home. Life with my mentally ill mom and alcoholic dad near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, before the Internet, was difficult. A smart, queer feminist without the language to talk about any of it—let alone identify with those lineages—I was profoundly depressed and mostly miserable. I ached for art and counterculture (remember that word?), but they were really hard to come by in small Rust Belt towns in the nineties. I read books, made zines, bought 45s, and ordered Sub Pop record catalogs out of the back of SPIN magazine, which at the time was a wonderland filled with mysterious ads for things like The Anarchist Cookbook.

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BurchcoverI am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself

 

deadpeoplecoverSun Ra

(1914 – 1993)

In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine… it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

Moor_Dear Mister Essay Writer GuyHow Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

In August of 1563, Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay form, was in Rouen, France, at the invitation of King Charles the Ninth. It is not entirely clear why King Charles invited Montaigne, since the French monarch was only thirteen years old at the time and Montaigne doesn’t come immediately to mind as a rollicking playtime companion.

Perhaps the young king needed Montaigne’s help with his high school admissions essay?

In any case, also at Rouen that fateful weekend were three Tupinambá Indians, natives of what we now call Brazil, who had been lured onto a ship and transported to Europe for reasons not fully established by the historical record.

One theory (mine) is that the French wanted these fellows to taste the coq au vin.

Find-the-GoodRecently, I was asked to write a short essay describing one piece of wisdom to live by. I thought about it but did not have a brief, easy answer. I have made enough mistakes in my life to fill a whole bookshelf of dos and don’ts. My friend John works as an investigator in the public defender’s office but is a poet. That is probably why he managed to distill all his fatherly hopes and dreams into two rules for his only child: “Be nice to the dog and don’t do meth.” His son turned out kind, clear-eyed, and he graduated from a good college.

Cover_LifeisShortArtisShorterIntroduction

Short Stuff

Bobs, tempers, college rejection letters, kinds of love, postcards, nicknames, baby carrots, myopia, life flashing before eyes, gummy bears, the loser’s straw, Capri pants, charge on this phone battery, a moment on the lips (forever on the hips), caprice, velvet chokers, six months to live, penne, some dog tails, how long I’ve known you though it feels like a lifetime, even a complicated dive, tree stumps, a shot of tequila, breaking a bone, a temp job, bobby socks, when you’re having fun, a sucker punch, going straight to video, outgrown shoes, a travel toothbrush, just missing the basket, quickies, some penises, lard-based desserts, catnaps, staccato tonguing, a sugar rush, timeouts, Tom Cruise, a stint, brusque people, stubble, the “I’m sorry” in proportion to the offense, fig season, grammatical contractions, bunny hills, ice cream headaches, dachshunds, –ribs, –stops, –hands, –changed, … but sweet.

On top of the world...............Sometimes when we walk down the quiet hallway, and stop at apartment #210, the door opens into a narrow dark foyer, the bathroom to our immediate left.  But sometimes, the door opens and reveals nothing but blue sky. In the former of the two possibilities, if we turn right, we walk down another hallway. Keith Richards plastered on the purple wall. We enter the living room with its low red sectional couch, covered in purple and black sheets and red pillows. Looking east, towards Lake Michigan—a bank of horizontal windows, the blinds usually drawn.

He sits down and pulls out his black lock box of narcotics.

He arranges his pills on the glass-topped coffee table. On a good day, Roku is working, and he picks something from Youtube to watch, or asks what do you want? I always say Law and Order. In this iteration, he’s okay—the pain seems to be manageable, he might eat something, or he might not, he might throw up, or he might not, and so things are in a kind of equipoise; meaning, theoretically, days like this could go on forever. And this is why I go to the kitchen and pour a glass of wine, and eat a candy bar.

indexUp and down Broadway, in and out of journalism, taken by daguerreotypes, transported by opera, gathering gathering gathering experience—but for what? By the early 1850s, Whitman began to feel what he later described as a “great pressure, pressure from within.” With his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching, he grew pained by the notion that at the same age Shakespeare was “adjudged already to deserve a place among the great masters,” having by then written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.

paper dreams front coverI imagine that everyone reading this who’s familiar with Ninth Letter and our distinctive format expects me to write something along the lines of “literary publishing needs to be more experimental! more design-heavy! just heavier in general—we need more magazines you can hardly lift!” And it’s true, Ninth Letter is a journal that stands out, literally, on the shelf: oversized, full of color, elaborately designed, packed with inserts, foldout posters, and other gadgets. Some readers adore this; others very vocally do not. The response we most often get from people seeing Ninth Letter for the first time is, “This is a literary magazine?” The answer is yes, if by “literary magazine” you mean a publication which primarily exists to publish poetry and prose of extraordinary quality. But it’s true, we do things a little differently from everyone else. Our mission, in addition to providing a forum for great writing, is to find ways to utilize graphic design so that it illuminates and enhances the literary experience. When our experiments are successful (more often than not, I hope), Ninth Letter becomes a new kind of reading experience. We have been credited with, or accused of, attempting to “redefine” what a literary journal is—maybe we’ve even made that claim ourselves somewhere along the way. But I don’t think “redefine” accurately describes Ninth Letter’s goal. What we really want to do is experiment with what a literary magazine can be. In this new millennium of crossed genres and blurred boundaries in art and media, ever-evolving technology can provide endless opportunities for creative work. Design and writing seem a natural partnership, both in print and online. At least, that’s how we see it.

black-and-white-escape-girl-run-running-favim-com-275624

People who have known you all your life are often surprised when they read your fiction. People who have held you in their arms, buttoned your pajamas, put band-aids on your booboos, whose children you grew up with. People who are family, and who like to remind you about that once or twice a year over a Rubio’s fish taco at the mall.

thrill of the chaste book jacketSimple Life or Soft Porn?

So wherein lies the cache of the fictive Amish Mädchen on the shelves and in the imaginations of contemporary readers? By what means have the Old Order Amish, who comprise less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the U.S. population, catapulted to literary stardom, so that novels about them repre­sent 15 percent of the top religious fiction titles sold by Barnes & Noble and 30 percent of a Christian bestseller list? What, exactly, is fueling the thrill of the chaste—this wildfire popularity of Amish romance literature and the virtues it contains? And what does it reveal about fiction, the Amish, and the rest of us?