#ShortAnswer

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I’ll admit it, if you give me a verbal leash, I’ll write or speak it out to length. This blog warns readers that they might have to be “long-winded” in order to read my thoughts and ramblings.

And still…

I constantly push myself with my writing, and for me pushing myself means learning how to write the short version of a story or essay. I review social media and recommendations from fellow writers and friends about where I can write and what I can write, and over the last two years I have found two top muses to propel me forward:

  • American Microreviews & Interviews:  This online publication, updated quarterly, posts reviews and interviews limited in word count but not limited in passion about good writing. I’ve never written an interview for them (interviews can be a little bit longer than the reviews, but not by much), but I’ve been writing book reviews for them, contained in tight packages of 500 – 700 words, since October 2017. We get to pick our books to review, and as long as the book was released in hardback form within the last calendar year and no one else claims it first, then one of the editors reaches out to the publisher of the book and hopefully I receive a free copy of the book within a week or so to start reading and reviewing it. If you click on the masthead, you may find all kinds of academics in the contributor list, and then there is me, the call center management pencil-pusher who went to college for literature and is just happy to bat for this team, thanks. I love, love, LOVE reading, but writing about reading, in a way that challenges my chatty tendencies, brings me joy.
  • This past December, newly unemployed, I found myself wanting to develop my fiction chops as well, and at one of the monthly meetings of Coffee with the Catapult (a once-a-month Sunday talk about what’s new in books with free coffee at one of my local indie bookstores) an anthology of micro-fiction was featured. I picked up a copy at discount, and took it home, and it sat on the shelf for a bit, until I got tired of journaling in the first week and thought I would throw in micro-fiction in my practice four days a week. I read two of the stories a day from the anthology before I write (the new one I read the previous day and a new one for the current day), and then I pick a topic (usually the next one in the list) from Barbara Ann Kipfer’s book 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, which I used to use in college when it was 10,000 Things to Be Happy About, for journal prompts. (The original has been lost in moves, but an additional 4,000 things to choose from is even better, am I right?) I try to keep the stories to the length of those in the anthology (less than 300 words), and usually about 30 – 90 minutes later I manage it, drenched in sweat and teeth ground down just a tad.

While the reviews are published, the fiction isn’t yet, but I’m just working up the muscles. I have four months’ worth of micro-fiction first drafts, which has been one of the rare feasible things between applying for jobs, going to interviews, submitting paperwork, etc in the job-hunting process. The little bites are little accomplishments; later, for a lark, after I am established in a job and finding my free time again, I can work on the revision of them on two of those four days.

*****

One of my favorite poets is William Carlos Williams, a guy picked on in social media by the literary and hipster folks to extremes for a)storing plums in the fridge, and b)stealing them from the love of his life. (Whenever I read another one of these gems that pops up I have to physically stop myself from the eye-roll, but I guess they are eye-rolling him, so fair enough.) In 2016 there was a movie made about the influence of his poetry on a Paterson, New Jersey bus driver (played by Adam Driver) called, well, Paterson. (One of my favorite movies, I should add, but not just for the William Carlos Williams references.) Williams was rumored to have hashed out some of his poems on his prescription pads, since his day job was as a doctor; the belief was that the little space of writing of those pads kept his poems short. If you do an online search, you’ll find some truth to this; Williams’s handwriting was a bit big to try such a stunt, so if you put a group of the sheets together you have a better idea of his application.

I don’t write my micro anything on prescription pads, Post-Its, or recipe cards. Maybe it would help if I did. I get out a lined, squared, or dotted 5″x7″ notebook and start my scratch when it comes to the fiction; the reviews are written in a template that I have to export from Pages on a Mac to a one-time Word translation via email for my editor. (I’m not sure why the handwritten stuff has to be lined or why I just don’t type everything, but maybe that’s next in my development process.) More satisfying than a tweet, and far less toxic, these baby steps are how I get to forming the big stuff…someday.

#TheCrawl

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I moved to San Diego in 2012 under duress. I didn’t want to move to San Diego, I wanted to stay in the Bay Area, but I had taken a career risk in the Bay Area and it didn’t pan out and I ran out of money. My brother and sister-in-law lived north of San Diego and I moved in with them. I’m always and forever grateful that they took me in, but I resented San Diego.

“But why hate San Diego?” I got if I even hinted that I didn’t care for it. “The weather here is wonderful!” And that’s where they usually stopped, which annoyed me beyond everything else. “Look! Endless sun! Why leave?” Every night on the news the anchors would make it worse by exclaiming that sun thing without any provocation whatsoever. San Diego: AIN’T WE GOT SUN.

I resented San Diego for reasons both valid and irrational. I hated that relentless sun. I hated the fact that there was so little shade, or even places to walk (our first apartment was stuck at the end of a road where the sidewalk came and went, and the closest business was nearly a mile away). I resented the lack of mass transit and resented the traffic and resented the heat (even though “gee, but it’s a DRY heat!” except in May and June when it wasn’t dry but this clammy form of dry), I resented the Santa Ana winds, I resented the massive amount of breweries, I resented the lack of bookstores, I resented the lack of cafes…

Seven years later I’ve found ways to make that lack a definition of luxury. I still hate the sun, but now I can use that as a reason to avoid melanoma and write in a coffee shop, which San Diego has a lot more of now. I have found places to have craft cocktails instead of IPA ALL DAY. And I have found my bookstores.

For the last three years, every year on Independent Bookstore Day (the last Saturday in April), San Diego bookstores have done a literary “crawl,” like you would find as a pub crawl in a neighborhood in other big cities. The first year there were three bookstores; the last two years there have been nine bookstores all over San Diego. I see it as San Diego as a booming book town…in hiding. I don’t meet many readers, particularly in bars. I wish I did. I wish I could grab a beer and a bite and read a book, instead of having to watch whatever sport is on the fifty televisions on the walls. Even San Diego’s coffee shops get a little nervous if you read at a table for longer than your coffee is warm. But I’m grateful for these book shops and their book clubs and their events; I’m less lonely and less resentful and more grateful for a few minutes.

The Crawl, this year, included the following bookstores:

  • Mysterious Galaxy – This bookstore is built into a strip mall in the Clairemont Mesa in the middle of San Diego. From my apartment it takes a train and a bus to get there (unless I feel like spending a fortune and getting a rideshare), so I only visit it for the crawl. I do follow them on social media, and they have author events and book clubs all of the time, as well as releases of new books every Tuesday with the rest of their new books. They also have lots of other items that aren’t books: pins, bags, t-shirts, etc. This year I picked up an enamel pin with a worker motif that says “Fight Evil, Read Books” around the circumference of the pin.
  • UCSD Bookstore – I miss university bookstores since graduating from college in 2000. While I’m not drawn to the Triton material, I love the stacks and stacks and stacks of books, and the possibility that students are reading these books for class credit. This year The Crawl had an Illustrator Ambassador, Susie Ghahremani, and she was working on her next book, painting in person, at the UCSD Bookstore when I was there. I picked up another one of her buttons (I have quite a collection of her enamel pins, all of them animals, some of the animals holding books or art tools or musical instruments) and a book wrapped in brown paper with a description of the book on the outside, the experience of a “blind date with a book,” which I love.
  • Warwick’s – Warwick’s is the oldest independent bookstore on the west coast. When you think about the implications of that, the store takes on more weight, even though half of the retail space there is not books or book items at all, but random gift items. I picked up the latest novel by Jess Kidd in paperback (Mr. Flood’s Last Resort). The ride from UCSD Bookstore to Warwick’s is the most beautiful bus ride on The Crawl; it’s a cliff-side view of La Jolla.
  • Run For Cover Bookstore – This bookstore is the newest store in the collection, opening in the fall of 2018. The store is a cozy little space in the Ocean Beach area, and they had old-time jazz and blues with live musicians out on the sidewalk when I stopped by. I picked up a book that was pure silliness there, The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America by Matt Kracht, a goofy version of bird guides.
  • La Playa Books – This bookstore was the quietest and calmest of the group. It wasn’t that they were empty, but the neighborhood in Point Loma was lazy and calm, and that seemed to play out in the cozy bookstore as well. There I picked up a copy of Francisco Cantu’s memoir of working for the Border Patrol, The Line Becomes a River.
  • The Library Shop – I probably go to this store the most of the group outside of the crawl because it is the closest shop to my apartment. The Library Shop probably has the lowest count of books in ratio to gift items, but I understand: they are next door to thousands of free books on loan. I met up with Susie again there, and she was signing her book that will come out in October, Little Muir’s Song. She signed my copy and we got to chat again about what her enamel pins have meant in my life.
  • The Book Catapult – This little shop in South Park is my second-most go-to bookstore since they have a book club that I could easily attend while I was still working. (They also have a lovely Indian fusion restaurant across the street from them, so book club is more and more of an event for me.) I picked up a copy of Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrion and a sticker of the bookstore’s logo to put on my laptop.
  • Verbatim Books – Verbatim is a used bookstore with a wonderful sense of funkiness, located in North Park. They have books, zines, stickers, toys, buttons; I picked up a used copy of Barry Lopez’s Crossing Open Ground and a pack of funky stickers for my daybook.
  • Bluestocking Books – This is the bookstore that I have been visiting the longest in my tenure in San Diego County, a bookstore of used books, vinyl, bookmarks, magazines, etc in the Hillcrest neighborhood. For my last stop I picked up a copy of Amor Towles’s novel A Gentleman in Moscow in paperback, as well as a couple of stickers for my journal.

With the possibility of me moving to the Bay Area in a little while, there are other things I have grown to love here in San Diego: friends, food, The Old Globe, the public library. But The Crawl gave me the chance to see slices of this town as “literary” and artistic. I did the entire crawl in one day, on San Diego’s mass transit (which I don’t recommend, but maybe someday the weekend service will improve so that I can), and every time I got on a train or a bus I was brought suddenly back to the reality of San Diego, a car culture that held very little store in books out in the world, but maybe those stark, opposing views of the city set me up for San Diego’s possibilities as well. Maybe, I thought, I could think of the bookstores in San Diego as more of the little oases of salons of old, as speakeasies of words and stories.

#BingeingNumbers

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When I was in elementary school (and I imagine when you were, too) there were summer reading programs put together by the local libraries. A series of charts with stamps or multi-colored circles that could be strung together with tape or string tracked how many books kids had read, and at the end of the summer break the numbers were tallied and kids won prizes for crossing certain number thresholds, prizes like personal pan pizzas from Pizza Hut, bookmarks, gift certificates for books, actual books, craft supplies, and so on.

I was a slow reader (STILL AM), so I never looked at all the “worms” over the summer. I loved the summer reading program because reading during the summer was SO VERY DIFFICULT TO DO ON A FARM WITH A LITTLE BROTHER WHO DIDN’T LIKE TO READ. Summer reading programs were the equivalent of being sent to your room for my brother, who preferred board games, video games, outdoor sports (swimming, mostly, because we had a pond and Mom wouldn’t let us swim alone so we had to watch each other). Summer reading programs for me was a big fat permission slip, a get out of jail free card, to read. My mother knew better than to punish me by sending me to my room: that was jackpot for me. In addition to having a little brother to socialize, the culture of living on a farm means that your father comes in from working on putting up a grape arbor or planting a zucchini patch and sees you reading and flips his lid (“must be nice to just sit and read”), so out you go to drag a wheelbarrow back and forth between the compost pile and the tilled plot or to muck out the chicken coop or to prune back the cattails without getting pinched by a snapping turtle.

Work came first and work was always there, and if Dad was at his factory job, then my brother would drag me into watching him lap the pond or do stupid water tricks or something. But the summer reading program…that was like summer homework…”Welp, sorry, nope, I need an hour for working on my reading goals…”

Both my brother and my father would set a timer.

(You will notice I don’t bring my mother up as a distraction from my reading goals…BECAUSE SHE WANTED TIME TO READ AS MUCH AS I DID AND DIDN’T HAVE A STINKING READING PROGRAM, so, yeah, she got it. That’s why if I was really being punished my hour got taken away…)

The result of reading like this never made me a faster reader. You would think it would; there are even programs that taught you to speed read. My brother took one of those to get through college, and even though he likes to read a little better now, he prefers TV and video games still. If I’m reading around him, it’s still okay for him to stop me…FOR ANY REASON. My father read aloud to my mother for years, while she was making dinner, and he only read Reader’s Digest and InFisherman; I found out after my mother’s death that her favorite book was Heart of Darkness, so imagine that kind of literary frustration for years.

*****

In December of 2007, I signed up for what is probably still my favorite social media platform, GoodReads. (Do NOT get excited for any reason that I wrote that; when I say phrases like “favorite social media” I mean the least of the evils. The fact that GoodReads is powered by Amazon is only its first problem, and etc.) GoodReads evolved into a website that allowed you to track your books read over the course of a year, kept count, patted you on the back when you set a goal and met it, and so on. I missed college and my college reading lists and what I had the ability to read in college, so I’d set the goal to college, and…FAIL. The problem was, when I was in college I was reading for a grade and a degree and if you guilted me into putting a book down in college you better have a good way to pass the course without me cracking the book.

There’s a reason I picked literature as my major and history for my minor.

See, the practical thing would have been to study the analytics that I now use for my “day” job. See, the practical thing would have been to take half literature and history classes and the other half psychology classes so I could teach literature or history. But the major of literature and minor of history meant that if I was doing homework I was on Cloud 9 and I could stay there until the end of the semester. Bonus: I got to go to what was the equivalent of book clubs and talk about:

  • Camus;
  • Dickens;
  • Austen;
  • Thoreau;
  • Woolf.

In literature. Or, in history:

  • Women’s history;
  • Civil rights;
  • The Greeks;
  • History of the UK;
  • African history.

(By the way, the UK history class stunk–bad professor–and still…it’s my favorite literature.)

After college, though, I was still reading a lot and listening to a lot of NPR, because I was medicating my mother’s illness by reading (this was before social media). Books limped me through isolation on a farm in Ohio as a kid, books limped me through my mother’s cancer, books limped me through culture shock moving from a flyover state to the worldly coast, and this past year, when I was downsized in December, books limped me through feeling useless through months of downtime. When I’m working, I take about six weeks to read a book; but with all of my friends and family occupied with jobs and me relegated to applying and writing and done by 3 pm, I started moving from social media to clearing one or two books a week. Most Saturdays were spent in the spirit of Francie Nolan from A Tree Grows In Brooklyn; pour a bargain bag of peppermints in a chipped bowl, crack some ice into a glass of water, grab the library books, push a pillow up against the bars of the fire escape landing, and read under the magic tree that miraculously grows out of the cement.

Sometimes I would have preferred a person.

But if everyone else is busy living a normal life, you take your newly weird life and make the most of it.

*****

This weekend an opinion piece came out in The New York Times about binge-reading, about making the case for replacing hours of Netflix with that fat novel on your nightstand. This morning, not really intended as a counterpoint but maybe inadvertently ending up that way, the website BookRiot published an opinion piece about not binge-reading. If you happened to read both pieces, they are two separate species; the NYT piece is more about if you haven’t read anything longer than a tweet in some time, maybe you should sit down and power through, and the BR piece is more about stop reading to meet a number of books read, like a badge…or a bookworm on a library wall.

When it comes to numbers, I get the BR piece entirely. I would rather see how long my worm gets before the end of summer (and the end of my unemployment is nigh, so end of summer is same), and not set a flipping number goal. (Every time I think of number goals for reading I think of George Clooney’s line from Up In the Air, “Let’s say I have a number in mind…”) I know that once I start working again it will be easier to come home and turn on Netflix, because I have friends who like to recommend TV and movies, not books, and because I do have favorites on Netflix, too, so I’ll be back to averaging one book every six weeks, and it will be a book as thick as a slice of toast instead of a book I could stop a door with. I also understand, from the point of view of teachers and education professionals these days, that setting book count goals for kids is controversial, especially if they are dyslexic or slow readers like me, or if they are just struggling with the task of reading to a number. I think kids should have the hour set aside, anyway, like I did; in that hour they have to put the electronics away, but they don’t have to all read the same way. They could take their hour and read, they could take their hour and draw book covers, they could take their hour and put that phone on airplane mode and listen to a downloaded audio book, they could take that hour and participate in a book club that recommends books…by peer readers. It’s the stopping and spending any kind of time with a book that seems most important. Kids may start out hating books, but what if they were as sold on them as they are sold on gadgets and social media and streaming services?

That’s the argument from the author of the NYT piece: what if we were given the space to spend time with books like we are talked into spending time with streaming? The BR writer insists that she read so many books back to back that she couldn’t remember them, and therefore felt no impact from what she read, but what about those of us medicating with books and finding all kinds of soothing aspects in them, but in order to keep the medication coming we have to read them one right after the other? Sure, I could medicate with Netflix, but, again, that’s for when I go back to work, unless I can create a habit now…of reading. To take a Saturday and just read through a whole book…and a book that J.K.Rowling could use as a spacer in her resume…it’s like a form of meditation.

I didn’t think anyone else felt this way about books, but then there’s NYT opinion writer (who is a novelist, okay, sure), and suddenly I’m vindicated for all the books I’ve gobbled for five months. As for the BR writer…my GoodReads count is set to a low number, that I occasionally change as I pass it. I don’t care how high it goes, because every book soothes something in me, changes something in me, calms something in me, comforts me with company.

If you see me out reading, go ahead and say hi…I will go back to that fat novel or memoir or biography of Muhammad Ali (542 pages if you don’t count the index, thank you, Jonathan Eig) after you rush home to watch Game of Thrones on HBO.

Game of Thrones is on my reading list, too.