I’ve been living on Ibuprofen. This is my NSAID Lullaby. sad.
About Matt BriggsMatt Briggs lives in the "in fill" between Seattle and Tacoma in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of several novels and collection of stories. His novel, Shoot the Buffalo, was awarded an American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation in 2006.
Author Archive | Matt Briggs
While I was going to work in Seattle and Bellevue, the ivy that clung to the Douglas fir tree behind my house and grew in the bed between the foundation of my house and the lawn, spread over the back of my house. The creeping vine crept over the bedroom windows, crawled over the kitchen window, colonized the gutters.
From my back deck in the bright summer the wall of green seemed somehow institutional to me. Ivy covered the brick of the cookie cutter Collegiate Gothic style. The massive buildings with ornate cornices and perpetual ivy signified the liberal education as much as golden arches signified rapidly produced hamburgers.
Whenever I see ivy I think of the University of Washington’s Gothic style, or the phrase Ivy League. I don’t really know much about the ivy league. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and U Penn, U Penn is an ivy league school. Some of these names have crawled into our vocabulary as a kind of verbal tinsel. These linguistic faux-marbling imply prestige: a development of tract homes in a Cape Cod style named Harvard Heights, a driving school called Princeton Academy of the Wheel, the Dartmouth Grill next door to the movie theater called The Harvard Exit Theatre.
Ivy fills the forests near my house. The vine clings to the trunks of Douglas fir. The vine strangles maple trees and cotton wood trees until they suffocate and become covered in lichen and mushrooms. The vine finally splits the tree into hunks that fall into the bed of ivy on the forest floor. The bed of ivy covers the forest floor in a knee-high blanket of meaty, fibrous leaves. Spiders, raccoon, and rats live under the cover of the ivy. At first, when you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with life, bird song, plants, and the somehow prestigious shape of ivy. The ivy transforms the trees into columns of ivy. Ivy hangs from the canopy.
On my first walk from my house to Puget Sound, I found myself in the bright and green woods. My house is in a subdivision modestly named Pinewood. The division is in a neighborhood with the humble name of Woodmont. The neighborhood is in a city named Des Moines after Des Moines Iowa and distinguished verbally from Iowa by the locals pronouncing the terminal S, as in “Des Moine-sss”. I walked through the fuzzy, vine covered trunks to a steep slope. I could see white caps on Puget Sound and then came out to the rock shore of the sea. The forest stood on the slopes of the hill, a solid mass of vegetation.
Despite densely inhabited strips of apartment buildings, condos, and small lot houses, my neighborhood retains a rural feel. Up until the recent boom in Seattle, much of the neighborhood had green belts required as noise mitigation from Sea-Tac. A constant stream of jets heads north as planes approach Sea-Tac. At other times the stream heads south as planes depart. Around the airport, the neighborhoods seem frozen in the 1960s and 1970s. There are less sports utility vehicles here than in Seattle or the East Side. People drive Ford trucks or newer Toyota Tahomas. There are many Datsun Z80s around. Only recently have the Toyota Camrys from the 1990s given way to Ford Focuses and Toyota Corollas. You find cars with body damage and primer in the parking lots.
The green belts stuffed with all consuming ivy right next to the densely packed urban apartments were dangerous. It is in the green belts that the community dumped toxic trash. It is in the green belts where temporary shelters house meth lab. It is in the green belts where the Green River killer executed his victims and stored (for easy access) their decomposing bodies. The ivy covers these things and gradually gnaws them out of existence. When you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with decay and death.
Occasionally, the community attempts to clear the ivy. Crews cut the veins at the root of the Douglas fir trees. They pull up the sheets of ivy revealing the rat trails, the piles of garbage, the bones of missing people. But within a season the ivy returns.
I realized about five years ago that the ivy was gradually covering my house. It wasn’t going to transform my house into an Ivy League college, but instead the tiny brown roots would finger their way into the siding of the house, crack the cement foundation and rip the house down until I was living among the spiders and rats.
As I cut the vines down, I cut the telephone land line to the house. The land line was no longer in use. I ripped out the copper line. I ripped out the vines. It came back in sheets with the roots clinging to strips of house wood and paint. After a weekend of labor the house was revealed. A few pieces of siding had been ripped up. The window screens held tiny filaments of ivy root that could not be removed. But the house has been restored, sort of, to how it looked when I first moved into it.
But the ivy has started to creep back. It has sent tentative feelers up the wainscoting. It will not rest.
Walking on the sidewalk in downtown Fall City, I avoided cracks in the cement. The roots of the maples tilted the stones. Some roots cracked the cement. Thick grass grew through the gap. “Step on a crack, break your momma’s back,” my brother said.
I stepped on the crack.
“I’m going to tell her,” he said. I wanted not to believe these things. Like Heaven, they seemed to me a scam.
At school, they talked about a figure named Jesus and God. “Where do they live?” I asked. “Have you ever seen them.”
“They live in Heaven.”
My father said that heaven was a scam. It was a way of making you do stuff that other people wanted you to do on Earth. We had pets that had died, and they were gone. We buried our cat Shorty George who ran into the rim of the Nova’s rear tire when he was trying to run across the street behind the car. He lay on the side of the road, not in Heaven, but on Earth dead, and whatever had been inside of them was gone, like a toy with a battery that had run out of power, like the toaster when it was unplugged, like the fridge when the power lines went down. Dead and without light or burning filaments or the smell of toast crumbs getting burnt even more.
“Don’t walk under ladders,” my father said. So I walked under ladders.
If we got out of bed on the wrong side, then our day would be filled with bad luck. We weren’t supposed to believe in Heaven, but we were supposed to believe in luck.
I tripped on a deadfall in the forest following my dad down to the pasture. “Go back and walk over that again.”
“I’m already on this side,” I said.
He looked at me. “It’s bad luck,” he said. “Fix it.”
Our world was filled with signs of doom and confirmation of our general bad luck, our damnation, our isolation from grace. My striped t-shirt had a perpetual spaghetti stain brown like the remnants of a bullet hole that had shot through me. I would never be clean and radiant and walking lightly through the world.
Even when I found a penny on the asphalt outside of the dinner called The Other Place, luck could be good or bad. We had two diners in town. One was named Martinelli’s like the golden bottles of sparkling apple juice in glass bottles shaped like apples. The other was not that place. A penny was a dreadful event on the asphalt, dry, but inches from the mud puddle with unfurling cigarette butts and the ribbons of fleshy night crawlers who had wriggled out of the cracks.
If it was heads up, bad luck. Worse luck. I didn’t believe in luck. If I didn’t get Heaven, but only had Hell, then I didn’t want luck good or bad. I would step on cracks, walk under ladders, shatter mirrors, always wake upon the wrong side of bed. It didn’t matter did it.
But the penny was heads up. Good luck. I could see the reflection of the cumulus clouds in the mud puddle. The day was going to go my way.
Text mining scripts in Python
I wrote a set of Python scripts to run numerical analysis on my writing. You can gain valuable insight into your writing by measuring your words. The measurement of your writing can be part of your writing practice, and sets the basis for creating tests when validating hypothesis about your writing.
You can find the text mining scripts in my GitHub repository. The repo contains the following scripts:
- Concordance (word count)
- N-Gram (word pair count)
- Entity extraction (keyword count)
- Search engine keyword analysis (scores keywords)
- Parts-of-Speech (part-of-speech frequency)
- Reading level (reading grade level)
These scripts were partly inspired by a job I had as a social media analyst in 2008. And the desire to create this set of scripts is one of the reasons I started learning Python. Social media analysis mixes two different disciplines: social network analysis and text mining. Social network analysis is the kind of thing that epidemiologists use to find patient zero. For my job, I was using network maps to track who was talking about products and who was listening to them talk about products. For example, I looked at who was talking about salsa. To quickly assess what they were talking about I used some crude forms of text mining. My methods at the time typically involved Excel.
These scripts use the Natural Language Toolkit (NLTK) which has been around for a while.
I have always counted the words in my writing, or in a handwritten journal, the time.
When I was sixteen years old and facing what seemed an essential choice of what I wanted to do with my life, this doing seemed more than a way of making money, but a choice that had to be a vocation. In my sophomore and junior year in high school, the school gave us a military skills test and career tests. I think both tests determined I should be a clerk.
I had planned on going to school to become an electrical engineer. In my family at the time the only white color jobs anyone had ever had been as engineers. I went to school were some of the parents were engineers for Boeing and some of the parents worked in the factories assembling airplanes. My grandfather had worked in a factory working on airplanes. My other grandfather worked on nuclear submarines. My father and uncles, however, had driven cabs and worked in restaurants. They weren’t chefs, but worked in the kitchen. And the thing about restaurant work is that no one thought of themselves a chef who worked in a Seattle dinner preparing Crab Louie. They thought of themselves as people who lived their lives and paid the bills by working in a Seattle diner preparing Crab Louies.
The engineers, however, identified themselves as engineers as if being an engineer was an existential condition. In the spring of sophomore year contemplating a profession of being an engineer where I would be an engineer rather than a guy who works on engineering to pay the bills, I decided if that as the deal I would rather be a writer.
I had no idea what this meant. Since engineers could earn a living in the state of being an engineer couldn’t writers get buy by being in a state of being a writer?
I didn’t really realize at the time that being a writer was more like being a clerk, and I was just affirming the effectiveness of the vocational tests.
I had a vague notion that a writer was someone who wrote and somehow things like housing and food were not that big of a deal. They just came with the gig. I may have been basing this on Jack Torrance from The Shining or Garp from The World According to Garp. I had three ideas that ended up being helpful to me.
One idea was that I had to write every day and that I was beginning from nothing and would have to learn by writing if I wanted to be a writer.
The second idea was that I had to finish stories. Garp wrote a story a month while in high school. And I had read in the introduction to a collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s firs stories, The Winds Twelve Quarters that she had written stories as a regular practice and sent them out. She wrote 40 stories before she was published.
The third idea was that I had to send my finished stories to magazines to get published. This meant I had found out where these things were and who to send them to.
Every night beginning that spring in 1987 I sat down to write. I thought about my work like it was a homework assignment, and so learned I could write 500 words with some degree of concentration. Even 500 words meant hat in a week I had a number of words that indicated a length of a story.
In a year I had finished 10 stories. In two years I had finished about 20 stories and written what I thought was a novel which was about twenty thousand words. One of the surprising aspects of this habit was that it didn’t require that much time. I could write 500 words in less than an hour. After I learned to type, I could write that in less than half an hour.
I kept writing when I enlisted in the Army Reserve and went through Boot Camp and skills training at Fort Sam Houston. I didn’t have time to write in Boot Camp, but at Fort Sam, the base library had typewriters I could use and I bought onion skin typing paper and typed on the IBM Selectric typewriter they had, 500 words or more. And then learned that onion skin is not good to type on because the ink flakes off. So I retyped my stories.
Word count was a familiar metrics to me. It was like miles are to a long distance runner, or laps to a swimmer.
I thought of the count of finished stories as proof that I was progressing toward being a writer thinking there would be a state change at some point. I would be published, and thereafter be a writer.
I also sent stories out. I found The Writer’s Digest Writer’s Market. I learned to send a story with a return postage, and began to collect rejection slips. I expected rejection slips at first and then became used to it. Early on in 1988 I got a shock when I sent a story to a local magazine edited by writer I had read about in The Seattle PI, Jessica Amanda Salmonson. She sent me back a letter and said something to the effect that based on the strength of the title of my story she had read my entire manuscript. And this had been her mistake. She suggested I get serious psychological help as quickly as possible not only for my own safety by the safety of everyone around me. My story had been called, “Leave Shatter Like Skulls.” I was reading a lot of L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Howard, Micheal Moorcock, and HP Lovecraft at the time. I was thrilled that my story had been read and that it has struck a nerve.
Based on this letter that saw my writing not as writing but as the symptom of a deranged mind I kept at for years. As a college freshman in 1992 I won a prize but not publication in STORY magazine in a year that saw a writer named Benjamin Anastas from the University of Iowa MFA program winning the first prize. The next year I published a story the Bellevue College magazine Arnazella.
It was working in that it was less of a state change from not a writer to being a writer. Being a writer was more like being a runner. While actively running, I am a runner. While putting in a regular word count, I am writer. Jack Torrance is probably a good model. I think most people may think of Torrance as a proxy for Stephen King. And in terms of making a living as a writer, who wouldn’t want to be Stephen King? But in fact it is much more like Torrance putting in words in the lobby of the Overlook Hotel, just be nice to your family and don’t go to Room 237.
My seventeen year old daughter Riley said something horrifying to her three year old cousin, Ila. Riley said that if Ila wandered away from where they were playing outside, a man who would find her and user bones as blocks.
“You said that?” my wife asked. “Why would you say that?”
Riley was confused that we were horrified. “Did anyone hear you say that?” my wife asked.
It struck us as both a weird thing to say to a child, and yet it was the kind of thing that people in my family said to their children. It was the kind of thing adults have always said to children. These things had been said to me. And in hearing her say it, I wondered if I had said similar things to my daughter? Why wouldn’t I have? Riley seemed to think this is what you do with children: Scare the hell out of them. You tell them about the Bogeyman, Slender Man, or Struwwelpeter. You engage in ambient child abuse through mythology.
Riley seemed confused. She said she had been told as a child if she didn’t behave a man would come and put her into a hole in his back. She said this in a matter of fact way. She had been told this, and we tell kids that monstrous things will happen to them at the hands of supernatural forces because that is what happens when you misbehave.
Yet what Riley had said about the man using Ila’s bones as blocks was clearly made up on the spot. Why would she make something like this up on the spot? Who told tell her a story about a man with a hole in his back that would imprison children in his body cavity if they did bad things?
Riley said that was us. It was some adult. We had told her this. My wife said, “I didn’t say anything like this.”
In the moment of round robin denial, I said, “I didn’t say something like that. It’s horrifying.” But later I thought about it. Had I? I mean, I could have. Before I had, had a child I had a very fuzzy idea of what it meant to be a child. My own parents felt that childhood was a dangerous myth that put young people in danger. In their world, a child was just an adult who as three years old. Growing up, I had never seen the kind of nurturing, protective, (maybe too-protective) attitude that parents had toward child and even the concept of childhood. The idea that something like Free Range Children needed to exist was absurd where I grew up. We were told to get out from under foot. Get out of the house and play. If we stuck around the house, we ended up doing chores. I was expected to turn up at dusk.
When my daughter was born, my attitude about childhood and adulthood changed because I was forced to examine what my attitudes even were. Part of this was due to the parenting classes offered through my Health Co Op that taught a form of parenting called attachment parenting, an approach used by Dr. Sears. Sears promoted attentive engagement with your child and close physical contact. Anticipate your child’s needs and provide a nurturing ting safe environment for the child to gain the confidence their needs would be met, and they were fundamentally safe. His approach seemed very logical. My parents practiced, I guess, a kind of proximity parenting, and a discipline inspired as much by Max Ernst as John B. Watson’s Behaviorism. Even though they were self-professed hippies, they weren’t into Dr. Spock. They were in the barn. I was in the barn. There was food in the pantry and the orchard. I could eat if I was hungry. I was raised in the barn.
As soon as my daughter was born, this changed. She had not existed. Then she was a kind of diaphanous figure in the amniotic void of an ultrasound in the physical reality of my wife’s womb. It took her nine months to grow a person inside of her body. The unreality of pregnancy turned very real. When our daughter came out into the world, she was coated in fluid, her eyes were closed, and she needed everything short of her own capacity to pump blood through her heart and air through her lungs. Anything short of nurture from that point forward seemed cruel. I was quick to yield completely to the myths of childhood, to the social contract, to the demands of Dr. Sears, to the responsibilities of adulthood and at times the crushing conformity that is required by a parent who needs to provide medical care, nutritious food, opportunity to their child. Nine months was just the warm up to the decades required.
Why then tell a small person who is still sorting out that airplanes fly, clouds are fluffy, and so that there are also men who kill you and use your bones for play things? Why tell them men would place your entire body into their bodily cavities? Who had told my daughter this disgusting and horrifying lie? This freaky fairy tale?
It was likely a someone from my side of the family. And among my side of the family it was likely a Briggs. My mother’s side of the family made up psychological torments, but only in the lines of what was materially possible. My father, however, would tell an old story he had heard on a Alfred Hitchcock radio show as a child about a fireplace in a cabin in the woods. A travel comes into the cabin and builds a fire. As he is warming myself by then fire, a voice calls out, “down comes the leg,” and then there was a leg dancing in the fire. And then a voice calls out, “downs come the other leg!” This became a catch phrase when I was growing up, “Down comes the other leg!” This would be the alarm when something surreal in real life was happening, which in my father’s world was often the case. During the cluster of the story the entire body comes down with the climax happening when “Down comes the head!”
There was in my father’s family a number of malevolent figures that my dad and uncle would talk about. That is the underpinnings of these figures were grossly allegorical and the crude allegory made them approachable as fantasy figures. We could just as easily make up own figures. (And we did later with figures like the Main in Plaid). Yet a the time I first heard of the Pernicorn or even the Sasquatch they seemed as real as any other thing adults told me.
For a six year old, they were no less real than other figures, such as Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, Jack Frost, bobcats, bears, and other spirits and animals in the forest. These figures for as long as I could remember as I could remember where balanced between myth and reality. The question of their existence was part of their existence. They were at once musical and cynical, at once a product of the imagination and a product of critical inquiry.
These figures seemed at once made up and also like they have come form something or meant more than just pure whimsy. Whimsy in my father’s family was used as a kind of weapon. This is one of the comforts of Trout Mask Replica to me. Captain Beefheart’s masterpiece is partly a masterpiece because it embodies the drunk uncle on acid and PCP aesthetic that my father and uncle delighted in when I was a child in Snoqualmie in the 1970s. (This is aesthetic is not isolated to the Snoqualime in the 1970s.) There is in that album a sequence where Beefheart and his cohorts record their interactions with some relatively straight neighbors during the cult like period of rehearsing the album. “It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush.”
Hair Pie: Bake 1
Girl: We just moved in around here. We heard you play, so we decided we’d come up and find out who it was
Captain Beefheart: O, ho, yes. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band.
Captain Beefheart: Yeah
Captain Beefheart: Where did you move here from?
Girl: Oh, just from–
Captain Beefheart: Reseda?
Captain Beefheart: She’s nice…
Captain Beefheart: What do you think?
Visitors together: Sounds good.
Captain Beefheart: It’s a bush recording. We’re out recording the bush. Name of the composition is “Mea… Neon Meat Dream of an Octafish.”
Captain Beefheart: No! It’s: ‘Hair Pie’
Girl: Looks you don’t find the drummer now.
For some reason we make up bogeyman for our children. I don’t know if is the children that need them however.
At 8:55 a.m. on Friday, February 16th 2018 my daughter, a high school junior in the Running Start Program, going to a college campus in Des Moines near our home, sent our family’s ongoing group chat called Froggy Johnson the screenshot of school alert she received on her phone.
“We have reports of gunfire on campus. Please lockdown all offices and classrooms until further notice. This message was approved for delivery to all students by the office of the Vice President for Administration under the Highline Student Email Policy.”
A barrage of messages (nine on my phone in nine seconds) piled up as my wife and daughter talked about where she was, what was going on, what my daughter was hearing. I looked down at my phone as it began to ping ten, fifteen messages. At first, I thought my daughter who is a pretty new driver had gotten into a fender bender or was having engine trouble. Instead, it was the report of an active shooter on her college campus.
As I caught up and read that she was in her room, that the doors to the room were locked, and that the police were coming, my first thought was she is probably safe. And let me wait and see before I invest any emotional urgency in this event that is beyond my daughter’s control much less anyone in her classroom’s control.
This is not the first lockdown my daughter has experienced. Every year since she was in grade school, her school has had lockdown events. There have been people on the campus with weapons. lockdown. There have been threats that someone was going to come to school and shoot people. lockdown. There was a massive riot between rival groups at the school. lockdown. The lockdowns are so routine that the fear of armed killers is a persistent part of the environment, like global warming, like a nuclear holocaust, like mass plagues, like ambient drug trafficking violence, like an e-Coli outbreak.
Life is not that dangerous, unless it is.
I began to follow #HighlineCollege on Twitter because it seemed to be the only aggregate source of immediate information about the event. Mostly, it was kids rightly scared out of their minds tweeting existential shout-outs to the void.
Updates kept rolling as the police began to respond. My wife heard the roar of a fleet of police cars and firetrucks racing up Pacific Highway South. SWAT Teams arrived. A woman with asthma had an attack. She and another person were taken to the hospital.
As the SWAT teams evacuated kids, they took them across the street to the Midway Lowe’s, and then let them go.
A traffic jam snarled the streets hours after the lockdown started. Traumatized kids left school. The college canceled classes for the rest of the day.
Despite someone tweeting an image of a white guy with a shotgun, it was unclear in the aftermath what had prompted the lockdown. It may have been fireworks. Chinese New Year is coming up, and so some people have fireworks. No one really knows what happened. But at the same time, no one is saying “Never Cry, Wolf.” We are saying about this event, cry wolf often and loud because there are people with guns, typically young white men with AR-15s, and the lockdown is part of this ritual.
Charles Mudede at The Stranger wondered why our society continues to allow our children to be murdered in our schools in his post, Mass Shootings Reveal America Is a Civilization That’s Reverted to Ritual Sacrifice. This is the same question the kids hunkered down in class were asking. “Why do I have to put up with this threat to my life just because I want to go to school? Why are my parents allowing us to be killed?”
The kids at Highline weren’t killed on February 16th.
After the danger had passed, my daughter came home and did her homework and played her video games. I ruminated on the news at work, reminding myself that there was nothing I could do about it. Even writing about it, like this, will do nothing.
After the danger had passed, I kept working. I work as a technical writer. I had a meeting with a man who didn’t want to talk me. He was confused about why I wanted to talk to him. I was not articulate enough to help him understand why I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him about something I was writing, and how this thing I was writing wasn’t making sense to me. I was told he could make sense of it.
He paced back and forth and said about this document I was working on, “I can’t tell you because there is too much wrong with it.”
I’m a writer. There is an idea that writers are supposed to somehow get at the truth of things. Journalists have their methods. Fiction writers have their methods. Technical writers have their methods. But the act of looking for the truth seems increasingly like Schrödinger’s cat.
It helps to know that the cat is dead. It helps to know if an assertion is false. From there you can proceed toward the truth. Even saying what is wrong with something is a movement toward the truth.
I believe our society knows this. We know there are false things and there are true things. Rituals are designed to make the untrue, true. Charles Mudede calls our society a civilization. Maybe our society is a civilization. Or maybe it is a post-civilization. I believe civilizations are based on conventions, just as the dictionary says — “an advanced state of social development, e.g., with complex legal and political and religious organizations.” But in the mode of a post-civilization, people would think that my relying on a dictionary was as naive as relying on the will of a society to protect the truth or its children.
We know one fact about weapons in our country. What we are currently doing is killing people.
I’ve been quizzing my daughter’s friends about what they read. My daughter is 17 years old. I am an old man who should not be allowed to ask children questions.
Leaves of Grass.
The Scarlet Letter?
Really? Huckleberry Finn? You’ve read that right?
No. What’s that?
It was written by Mark Twain. You’ve read something by Mark Twain? “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County?”
Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, Ann Carson, William Burroughs, Margaret Atwood?
Those are authors, right?
What have you read? Do you read books in school?
We read books. The Kite Runner. My class read that.
You haven’t read Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, or 1984?
Dead white men.
You haven’t read The Moons of Jupiter or Beloved?
What are those?
Books from Nobel Prize-winning female authors from North America, who are still alive.
I hear you have written some books. Have you written anything that I’ve seen?
Seen, like in a bookstore?
I like Stranger Things. I love the 80s.
When were you born?
And you like the 1980s?
Everything seemed so much freer then. You could do anything you wanted to do.
In the late winter at the Snoqualmie Pass, I walked into the snowdrifts under the fir trees. A truck on the freeway sounded its horn, and under that the rush of tires on the frozen concrete whirred and groaned. The crust of snow shellacked with a rain mostly held. When my boot broke the surface, my boot sole plunged into powder, filling my sock with shards of ice and a spray of snow. The snow melted and soaked my socks. The ice shards melted slowly as I pulled my boot back up to the crusted surface and kept moving across the ice.
I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go. I had wanted to go out into the snow and had this image of walking until I came to a creek that was free from ice out in the middle of the current. The flowing water would be black. And around it the white snow and blue icicles hanging from the trees would make it feel as though I had come to a place, somewhere out in the forest, but as I slowly made my way across the ice crush between the trees, the entire forest began to look the same. There was the sound of the freeway behind me, receding, until I could only hear the occasional flump of a tree releasing its snow load or I could hear the whistle of a marmot or the chatter of birds eating whatever they could find. A camp robber had been following me the half mile or mile I traveled into the forest.
A misty fog or clouds depending on how you wanted to look at it had descended to the tree tops and obscured the cliffs and mountain tops that would provide some sense of where I was. I could see how easily I could get lost. I kept breaking through the ice and left a trail back to where I came, otherwise, forward and back were the same sequence of heaps of snow and ice, trees with ice clinging to the bark. To head, back was the same as moving forward. Eventually, I arrived at a creek with free-flowing water in the channel. The water was black in the white landscape. I turned to head back but didn’t know where to return. To head back was the same as moving forward.
Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.
I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).
I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.
I pass this sign when I walk from my house to the beach. It is a stop sign on the way from my house toward the beach. I have never stopped walking when I passed this stop sign. On the way back from the beach, I pass the sign and enter the region that is here declared as no outlet, a set of dead ends and cut-de-sacs, and I walk a trail that leads into the forest. I pass along this trail through the forest and have a choice of where I would like to exit. I can pass along behind a row of houses along a muddy track and come out onto a paved cul-de-sac in a development of houses built in the mid-1960s. Or, I can walk along a road that ends in a gate that has never been open, and then walk alongside the road on a shoulder that is not really meant to hold pedestrians. Blackberries hang from the maple trees and a fence. Or, I can walk up to a set of bridges that cross over the canyons where the paves roads end and then the creek cuts through narrow gullies that finger out into the subdivisions built along Pacific Highway South.
There is clearly an outlet at this point even though the sign declares to anyone paying attention that there isn’t one. I routinely ignore the warning labels and laws with their clearly stated does and don’ts and I don’t know at what point in growing up I learned then and at what point I learned that I should not follow them. Continue Reading →