This is as much for me as anyone else. How do people remember their own AWP Schedules? (AWP is the annual conference for writers and writing programs. This year, it’s in Portland, March 27-31.) Thursday:… More
I can’t sleep at night. I pretend it’s not because I’m dreaming of fire. I pretend I’m not thinking about the ticks that used to die in the cold but now it’s not cold enough for them to die so they suck the blood out of Moose in Maine. Maine people call them ghost moose and I’m not thinking that the white of moose, so lacking color because so lacking fur, now matches the skinny polar bear which we’re not supposed to think about because it’s so cliché.
So, instead, I organize and arrange my thoughts as I flip my pillow over to find the cool side. I make categories. Fruit: Apple, banana, Cutie™, durian, elderberry, fig. Cars: Alfa Romeo, Buick, Chevy, Dodge, Elon Musk, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Isuzu, Japan.
I get stuck on diseases: ALS, Bulemia,
It’s best when I get stuck on a letter. My mind rides around like a bicycle in a cul-de-sac. It’s exhausting, riding in circles.
I love my bubble. I love when I post on Facebook a hundred times a day about my obsession with tracking my sales ranking for Sustainability on Amazon that I still get a bundle of likes. I like that my students laugh when I say “writing isn’t just putting your head on a piece of paper” and then put my head on the desk on top of a piece of paper to demonstrate that that is NOT what writing is like. I like that I can count on readers in the audience to laugh when I read to them about my neighbor who vacuums the rocks. I like when the breathless reading coupled with the slow waltzy reading reads like good energy. But when I read last night, that breathlessness plus waltz ended up making me sound according to the audience, crazy. They said things like, “how do you sleep at night with that going on in your head” and “wow. There are a lot of words there.” It was a different audience than my bubble. They were older and richer and maybe not really readers. It’s weird to think I only write to readers. Like full time readers. That might be fine but if part of my dream is to bring new information and stories and minds to other people, that maybe a narrow audience isn’t the best. Or maybe they were pushing back against the content—talking about sustainability to people who live in gated communities might not be their cup of tea. There were some kind questions—“Are you always worried about the apocalypse?” “How does one teach creative writing.” I think the question and answer session drew some more respect for what I was saying. I guy said, “I love your letters to the governor.” I tried to answer their questions without being a jerk. When the woman asked, “Why are prairie dogs important?” I responded, “Because they are so smart they can tell the difference between people in yellow shirts versus people in red ones.” I wish I’d said, “Why are any of us important?” I wish I’d asked the woman who wondered how I slept at night, “How do you sleep at night?” But I did fail. They didn’t get it. I chose the wrong thing to read or I had too high of expectations. Lawrence, who read with me said, it felt like a trial. He liked that feeling. I didn’t so much. Leaving the bubble is hard. I’m always surprised that, by the end, I haven’t persuaded everyone to my side. I do manage it, usually. So to leave the event feeling like they thought, man, there’s some crazy writing out there and with nary a book sold, I felt like a failure. I wish they’d understood that the writing is meant to convey a feeling of stress and wildness but that it’s cultivated. That’s how writing works. You don’t put your head down on the page and let the crazy seep out. You construct the crazy with very sane letters and images and associations. I told the one man who said, My, you use a lot of words and images in a row. So many metaphors, “That’s the point. How do we know where to land in our understanding of the way the world works. Sustainability isn’t the same to the otter as to the crawdad as to the hole. Or to you or to me. That’s what makes sustainability hard.” It’s also what makes writing hard and leaving your bubble hard. They didn’t buy any books, which hurt, but I do hope all not long, as they too don’t sleep, that the images I put in their heads of otters and crawdads and fracking and methane gas churn through their heads leaving them breathless.
Reality TV and the Dead Man
I go to bed every night reading Anthony Bourdain’s Medium Raw. It is not a particularly deep book but the sentences are elegant. The way he sweeps from rant to interview to praise. He knows that the way to set a scene is to put your body in a place and there is no better body placing act than eating a bite of food. The way he describes an oyster on the tongue. A beef tongue on the grill. A grilled steak that does not pretend to be a substitute-for-meat portobello.
He is dead every day since he died and yet there he is on Parts Unknown swinging his shoulder out of a train window while the theme song sings “Felt the cool rain on my shoulder.” His body is in place and yet it is also rotting in the ground. How do I still love you?
It’s combination of a death rattle and a pulled muscle, my relationship to you and my own body in the late evening. I should go to bed but my own daughter keeps me up at night—thinking about how much she feels about the world. Her friend. Herself. Injustice. Trampoline.
I read you at night dead man, why? To keep myself awake?—am I like you? Is my daughter like you? I saw your eyes in the promo. You looked straight on to the man serving you uni and mako. Do you have to be already dead to serve the dead fishes? Or does it make you a member of the utmost living, eating great swaths of tiny sea urchin. I’ve only had a bite of urchin in my deep dark life. My favorite thing about tiny foods is trying to make each egg discrete. Ah, discreet with a t between the ee’s.
Or do I read to put myself to sleep. Not me not me not me. I love the way words make a lullaby, a rock-a-by that swings up toward death and back toward and away from your mother. Ginger Nile wrote “Got ‘em” when she was reunited with her 12 and 13 year old babies and I said, “Good Catch.” I did not say it to make me famous. I will get famous on urchin roe and child nurturing on my own.
I go to sleep with a number of dead men on my night stand. Which one rocks me to sleep the most? The most recently dead? The long, Shakespearean dead? The dead of my graduate school readings? That dude who wrote Confederacy of Dunces? The women on my night stand, Jesmyn Ward and Robin Wall Kimmerer and Elena Passerello are still alive. I even know a couple of them and/or am friends with them on Facebook.
I read all the books but I keep going back to this recently dead. The recently dead knew something the rest of us don’t. I try to figure out what it is in their writing. Is it the way they go from judging the crappy behavior of people to turning inward and wondering what about them makes them think crappy thoughts of others. Is it the pacing of the sentences? Is it the way they say, “I would die,” throughout the book.
When I was 14, I went through a New Agey phase where I read Shakti Gawain. She said, never think “I’m going to die,” when, for example, you get too much math homework because that will give you cancer later. And always speak positively, even if you’re expressing something negative. “I would like something besides hamburgers for dinner “ instead of “no burgers!” If I could make a concordance of Medium Raw and how many no’s or not’s there were, maybe there would be an excessive number?
Does death, especially suicide saturate everything? In my book, Sustainability, A Love Story, I talk a lot about suicide and planet death and wonder if everything is one big slow suicide. I used to read Anne Sexton just for the suicide clues. I should have read Infinite Jest in 2007 before David Foster Wallace died. But now he’s just another dead guy like Shakespeare and Hunter S. Thompson who might have had something to say about death but now it’s too far away to know. As Bourdain still floats along the airwaves, is still alive on Reality TV, he’s in between life and death and maybe sending messages about both. I read Medium Raw and then maybe I’ll read Kitchen Confidential again and watch Parts Unknown and feel the cool rain on my shoulder. Maybe I’ll go to Tokyo, Bourdain’s favorite place, or one of them, and figure out how to order uni in Japanese and see if that’s what it feels like to live. Or maybe get a hint of what it feels like to die.
It’s a hard world. It’s impossible to think about books as an entity while the world is in such deep trouble. But the inside of books. That’s where the trouble gets its due. I’m in the middle of book edits with my collaborator, David Carlin, on our book called The After-Normal. It’s about climate change and how we try to hang together as we watch the world, so slowly, fall apart. And then we try to imagine–hey, there are ways the world puts itself back together. You’ve got to imagine both sides of the trouble to get through the day.
Forthcoming from Ohio State University Press in October, 2018.
Nicole Walker is an Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University, the author of Egg and Where the Tiny Things Are, and co-editor of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.
In Sustainability: A Love Story, Nicole Walker questions what it means to live sustainably while still being able to have Internet and eat bacon. After all, who wants to listen to a short, blond woman who is mostly a hypocrite anyway—who eats cows, drives a gasoline-powered car, who owns no solar panels—tsk-tsking them? Armed with research and a bright irony that playfully addresses the devastation of the world around us, Walker delves deep into scarcity and abundance, reflecting on matters that range from her uneasy relationship with bats to the fragility of human life, from adolescent lies to what recycling can reveal about our not so moderate drinking habits. With laugh-out-loud sad-funny moments, and a stark humor, Walker appeals to our innate sense of personal commitment to sustaining our world, and our commitment to sustaining our marriages, our families, our lives, ourselves.
This book is for the burnt-out environmentalist, the lazy environmentalist, the would-be environmentalist. It’s for those who believe the planet is dying. For those who believe they are dying. And for those who question what it means to live and love sustainably, and maybe even with hope.
On Facebook, it must look like all I do is write a book on Saturday and then on Sunday, find a publisher. This August, I posted about Egg, which came out in March from Bloomsbury and had some good success but then got a one star review on Amazon. I told Facebook. Lots of people posted nice things about Egg. And then in late September, Where the Tiny Things Are came out from Punctum Press. I’d just had an Egg party at Lawrence and Andie’s in April (for Easter!) and one for Micrograms in October last year. I didn’t really think that I should have another book party. But my dear friend wanted to throw one with my birthday party and I do love birthdays, parties, and books. So I was game for that. Then, the cover for Sustainability was released! That book doesn’t come out until next year but the cover. I had to share it. Then, Love in the Ruins: A Survival Guide for Life after Normal won an open reading contests with Rose Metal Press. It has been fun and wild and a little bit shy-making. It does seem like a lot of books at once.
But the real story is much longer and darker. I finished my first book of essays, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, in 2007. I found an agent, Malaga Baldi, who almost sold it to Bellevue Literary Press but the editor there asked me to write a new introduction and I must have screwed that up royally because the book did not sell. Then, I sent it to the Graywolf Nonfiction contest where it was a finalist with three other manuscripts. Instead of choosing one of those, Graywolf chose to publish my good friend Ander Monson’s book Vanishing Point. Milkweed liked it but it wasn’t environmental enough. A year and a half goes by. I send out. I get rejected. In September, 2011 I get a call from Amy Wright at Zone 3 Press to say I had won their creative nonfiction contest. A full four years after I had that first nibble from Bellevue.
In November 2014, on my birthday, I got an email from Graywolf about my book Sustainability: A Love Story. I was again a finalist but again they went a different direction. I was in Denver at the Art Museum. I cried in the gallery. Failure is the genesis of success. I got mad and wrote the rest of the book. My agent, Malaga Baldi, sent it to Milkweed and a number of other places but in between, I’d been invited to submit it to Ohio State University’s new imprint, Mad Creek books. They took it! Meanwhile, I’d been invited to submit a proposal for Egg. It was rejected! Again, I got mad. I wrote the rest of Egg. I resubmitted my proposal.
Where the Tiny Things Are was a finalist for the Cleveland State University Press’s open nonfiction contest in 2015. I wrote the book in 2010. An editor at Soft Skull Press said they would probably take it and then she ghosted me for a year. I published each part in chapbooks including the tiny essays in a chap collection called Micrograms. I was sheepish putting out the Where the Tiny Things Are–this collection of really long essays about Microclimates, Micropreemies, Microorganisms that help repair polluted water, wine growing in Arizona and The Micromanagement Era of the Distracted parent because it had been published in its constituent pieces. This book is with Punctum Press. I am so sheepish I’m having a hard time getting the word out about this one but I want to support the press and I want people to read the book so I’m going to stop with the sheep and say, yay! Thank you, Punctum Press and thank you Erik Sather who is making a companion film for the book which I hope helps the book to sell.
Love in the Ruins: A Survival Guide for Life After Normal is a collection of short essays by me and David Carlin.It’s an abecedarian–a, b, c, d, e. We wrote an essay a week starting with A (Albatross and Atmosphere) and then sent it to the other person to read. We finished in 26 weeks. We revised. It is incredible how fast Rose Metal took it but that never happens. I have novels I’ve never published. I just got three rejections in one day from my new project. I write every day not knowing if this project is going to make it or not. I have been so lucky. Maybe my luck will run out. Maybe my writing won’t be interesting to people. Maybe I’ll never win a big award for my book. But I really, really love what I do even if failure is written into doing it every step of the way.
It’s our first Book Club book. Read along. Comment below!
I was telling my students about the U Penn class called Existential Despair where students come to class on Tuesdays at 5:00 p.m., turn in their phones, grab a book, and read it for seven hours. When I was twelve years old, I read for seven hours straight. As a grad student, I probably read for seven hours straight, when I was in the pit of despair in 2014, I read all the Harry Potters in a row, which probably took seven hours straight but I have not read big chunks in a long time. My students want to read more but, they said, I just want to know what to read. I said, I get that. That’s why I went to grad school.
But I promised them a book club that would go beyond our semester together in Intro to Creative Nonfiction and so I’m going to organize it here. We can post comments back and forth. Maybe I’ll make a page per book but for now, I’m going to start with a list of books and the order in which we’ll read them. Anyone can opt in or opt out but I’ll be here, reading these books along with you. Or them. Or you and them. And me.
Kitchen Confidential Anthony Bourdain (one reason I cook and write and write about Eggs)
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City Nick Flynn (the other reason I write nonfiction)
Refuge Terry Tempest Williams (one reason I write nonfiction)
This presentation can be read along the last essay in the Egg book from Bloomsbury–The Present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.
I turned the talk I gave last year in Melbourne into an essay for Creative Nonfiction magazine. Now, I’m kind of obsessed with braided essays and am looking forward to working with my colleague, Gretchen Younghans, who teaches at Flag High. As part of the Alpine program, she and I and a few grad students are taking her Alpine students out to Clear Creek Reservoir to kayak and write.
I suggested we do a braided essay exercise where the students make observations about the tiny things, the mosquito hawks on the surface of the water, the kinds of graffiti on the rocks, the spinning leaves, the wind broken trees. Then, when we take a break for lunch, the students will use their observations as one thread of their essay. Then, they’ll switch to writing a personal narrative that uses scene and dialogue to really root us in their experience–they could write about their emotional experience being on the lake, they could write about a past memory of another lake, they could write about their childhood kitchen or the time they dropped their school lunch on the lunchroom floor and everyone laughed. After five minutes of personal narrative, we’ll ask them to return to their “research,” again dispassionately describing what they saw. Then, after five minutes, we’ll ask them to return to their personal story finishing, for now, this process.
In revision, what the students might discover is how certain word choices, images, or motifs appear in all four sections. To make those synchronicities stronger, the students can emphasize them by writing a little more, and a little more slowly, around those repeated moments. They can change some words so more words do repeat. And, they can see how, by putting these two seemingly random stories together, they learned more about themselves and the place they visited by pressing the two so closely together.
In order to give the students a sense of what these essays might finally look like, here are some examples.
Brenda Miller’s Swerve
Lee Ann Roripaugh’s The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed
Nicole Walker’s Superfluidity
Matthew Komatsu’s When We Played
The above essays show how moving from topic to topic between paragraphs can provide multiple perspectives on the same topic like a prism. The following essays, though longer, provide that true braid where the back and forth phenomenon leads to a new and integrated understanding of the subject.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s How to Skin a Bird
Nicole Walker’s Abundance and Scarcity
Joann Beard’s The Fourth State of Matter
Eula Biss’s Time and Distance Overcome