What’s cooking and what’s already on the table

My mother in 1966

Being on sabbatical puts a insulating layer between me and the academic seasons, but I can still sense the weather shifting via publication cycles. Even for magazines and presses without university affiliations, there are year-in-review lists and columns: Aqueduct Press just published one of mine, and I’ve just submitted another to Strange Horizons for early January publication. I’ve been reading proofs for December issues. Rejections are souring my inbox. I also received three delicious acceptances from magazines I’ve never cracked: I’ll have poems in Smartish Pace and Kenyon Review Online next year, plus an essay that’s central to my forthcoming book, Poetry’s Possible Worlds, will be in American Poetry Review. I’m freaked out, sad, tired, and feeling like a shut-in, yet that is some serious holiday cheer.

I’m rarely in a good mood, honestly, when I’m processing publication’s endless clerical business, even the wins. Being immersed in writing and reading feels better. Yet there are payoffs. A big one today is getting to celebrate the just-published issue of Shenandoah. I’ve been proofing the fiction, nonfiction, comics, and translations sections, which I otherwise have almost nothing to do with, although I love what the other editors have selected. The poetry section, though, is full of my babies. I recruited a few of the authors; most are people whose work I didn’t know before last year, when I sifted their beautiful poems out of the hundreds and hundreds submitted during our brief reading period. I can’t play favorites, loving them all equally, but here’s a tasting menu, each chosen because it will make you feel replete:

There’s a wide range of other feelings and experiences represented in this suite of poems, but for now: honey, rhubarb, persimmons.

More fruit of past efforts: this Sunday at 4 pm ET, you can check out poetry readings by Anna Maria Hong and me, courtesy of Hot L. (They’re recorded.) I’ll be virtually live (oh the paradoxes) in the Poetica-Malaprops series at 3 pm ET on Sunday January 3rd, and in the Cafe Muse series on Sunday January 4th at 7 pm ET. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure out what end-of-year submissions I need to scramble up for postpublication book prizes, other random opportunities, and yes, the magazines. It’s a lot, and most of it won’t end palatably. But no cooking, no feast.

Becoming Unbecoming

My debut novel launches this Friday, May 15th, 2020. Here’s the story of how the book came to be.

I was in my late forties in 2015, sending my oldest child off to college and feeling glum about the next phase of my life. Hormonal shifts were not helping. On a walk with my spouse, I said something like, It’s not fair that mutant superpowers always come at puberty. Menopause is basically puberty in reverse–I want my superpowers now. He said, That would be a good premise for a novel.

A poet, scholar, and teacher, I thought I’d passed the forking path to novel-writing a long ways back. Chris is a cheerleader, though, and–this is crucial–author of a couple of published novels and many short stories, so he’s a great person to talk to about small, vague story ideas. I’d been fantasizing about another tale I never expected to write: a changeling professor, Dr. Perfect Poet, visits on a faculty exchange program and makes literary triumph look like a breeze. I’d drafted a bad poem about her, in a fit of frustration about my own messy life. (The closest thing I had to a superpower was yelling, Flame on! during a hot flash). As we walked and talked, I realized these two plots could interlock. Chris and I started spinning it out–who this main character might be, with her irritating and uncanny new colleague, and how she might react when weird things started happening.

Even when possible structures appeared in the air, I wasn’t sure I had the will or the stamina to put them on paper. I wrote fiction as a teenager but it always stalled. I’ve never taken a fiction writing class, either, although I’ve been an obsessive novel-reader since childhood. But I was on sabbatical 2015-2016, so I thought maybe I would try to write a short, mediocre novel, told chronologically in a single voice–no pressure, no big ambitions, although I wanted it to be fun to spend time with. Complexity with humor, possibly even hope, plus a world that draws you in quickly and won’t let you go: that’s my sweet spot as a reader. That’s one reason poetry is important to me, by the way. The world can be unrelentingly awful, and I’m ready to stare down that badness in short forms, especially when they deliver the consolations of patterned sound, but you have to live in a novel for days. I need novels to be better than life, or at least absorbingly different.

That fall, my mother came down with a mysterious but devastating illness, eventually diagnosed as lymphoma. My concentration and schedule were broken into fragments. When, stabilized, she moved back into her home (in Pennsylvania, a six-hour car ride from here) and entered a steady chemo regime, I had time again, but still couldn’t seem to finish the book of essays I was supposed to wrap up. A scene came to me in the shower. I dried off and wrote it down. I finished a chapter. I kept going. For weeks, sentences arrived in my head and I typed them in. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing, and by late January, I had that short, mediocre draft.

The rest of this origin story is less fun, and not just because it coincides with Trump’s election and presidency (some of my characters saw that coming, by the way, but at least in my conscious mind, I did not). I learned that my draft was considerably more mediocre than I realized and had to put the ms through numerous painful overhauls, fixing everything from clumsy prose and plotting to tricky problems of character I’d been refusing to confront. I queried agents prematurely, earning some requests to see the full ms but never an offer. I revised more, with help from many readers, and eventually received a “revise and resubmit” letter from Aqueduct Press, which specializes in feminist sf. Further excruciating revisions ensued, plenty of them at a rapid pace last fall, as I was teaching full-time and delivering my youngest to college. And here it is. Good early reviews make me hope it’s a decent book now, not god’s gift to literature but engaging and sometimes funny (in Locus, Gary K. Wolfe, whose sf criticism I admire, even said parts were hilarious and evoked the campus novels of David Lodge–whoa). I presume I have plenty of ego blows ahead, but I’m glad I took the risk and followed the spark of impulse.

I’m on sabbatical next year and I have another novel idea, a project that again emerges from a twilight zone between realism and fantasy. I’m not at all sure the drafting process will feel magical again, with characters whispering lines to me. It won’t be a campus novel this time, either, which means much more research. I’ll also work with multiple perspectives–getting more ambitious, basically. It still feels like playing hooky from poetry, knowing I’ll come back to my home genre freshly, having learned a few things.

Revision, re-audition

With both a novel and a poetry collection due to editors this spring, this winter is all about revision. I’ve been combing through my poetry ms, trying to get the opening tracks right (I’ve tried five million variations) and forcing myself to fix or cut iffy but beloved poems. I’m also organizing a last round of submissions, alerting magazine editors to the publication date, and thinking hard about the title. Finalizing the title may entail yet more re-tuning, as well as research into cover images. Eventually I’ll hand it over to Molly Sutton Kiefer at Tinderbox, and I’m sure she’ll will find more for me to do!–but it’s exciting to be circling in.

Then I switched gears to my novel, Unbecoming. (This week is an academic break, which helps.) Timmi Duchamp at Aqueduct asked me to read it aloud before handing it over. I’m finding plenty of klutzy sentences to fix as well as an unbelievable number of adverbs, although I thought I’d weeded them out in the last round–they’re like bunnies or dandelions, proliferating in a fallow ms as soon as you turn your back. Like my poetry book, Unbecoming has survived more than a dozen major revisions, but the last ones focused on character, pacing, and a tendency to summary and over-explanation. I still have traces of the latter to expunge, but what I’m really striving for now is clean, direct sentences.

I like revision, even though it hijacks ALL my creative energies. (With these rewrites to tackle, plus Shenandoah poems to read and grant proposals to draft for my 2020-2021 sabbatical and this pesky full-time job as teacher-adviser-program coordinator, I feel like I’ll never write a new poem again.) It’s rewarding to hone old efforts and feel sentences click into their grooves. But I’ve been thinking about the word “revision.” Its emphasis on “looking anew” doesn’t entirely capture what I’m doing. In both genres, I’m re-sounding lines, trying to hear them freshly, managing echoes within mss. I’m also thinking hard, as I revise, in order to revise, about giving readings. What passages or poems would I choose to read aloud to audiences, and why? Do they sound right in my voice? If I would want to kick off a reading with this poem, or end it with that scene, do those preferences have implications for the arrangement of a printed book? Or do the mediums of print and live reading simply have different requirements?

Can you hear the anxiety? I’m really happy about these books but subject to fizzes of terror, too. I know the poetry book is my best ever and I have decent credentials to make that judgment; what puts me on alert is mainly my drive to do right by the work, shining it up and showing the widest possible audience that my poems are worth their time. I know that sounds arrogant, but I actually believe it. Fiction, though! Giving readings from a novel!! At least Ursula finds revision relaxing.

Change of (literary) life

upsidedown

It’s fall, 2015. I’m on sabbatical. My mother is direly ill with what turns out to be lymphoma. I’m mourning my daughter’s departure for college and worrying about her experience there; my son, new to high school, faints in a clinic and is diagnosed with pneumonia. My own body is going haywire, perimenopausally. Amid doctor visits, road trips, and existential crises, I can’t concentrate on anything.

I have, however, been batting around an idea. I spent my girlhood writing stories and have always been an avid novel reader–literary fiction but also fantasy, science fiction, mysteries, horror, and a lot of the slippery genre-crossing stuff. Could I write a novel myself? A short one, maybe, drawing on worlds I know well to ease the learning curve? Could I do it–what the hell–right now?

I’d been inventing character backstories and had a couple of narrative threads in mind. Aside from artistic curiosity about the practice of novel-writing, though, the motivating impulse was to rewrite transitions like my own–which seemed at the time wholly about loss–so that they became empowering. In so many tales, magic or superpowers hit at puberty, and the physical changes I was undergoing were basically puberty in reverse. So wouldn’t menopause ALSO be a logical time for a person’s power to change? Why should teenage characters get all the joy?

So I wrote round the clock from November 2015 to January 2016, joyously, shocked at how fun and absorbing the work was, until I had a full draft. It was pretty terrible, but luckily for me, I’m married to an excellent teacher of fiction-writing. I rewrote it a few times and started sharing the ms with other friends. Many gave tough criticism in an encouraging way, bless them forever. Putting the ms under revision after revision, I killed some of my darlings and maimed a few, too. I deleted characters, complicated others, overhauled plot twists, faced a number of things I hadn’t wanted to admit about myself, and cut summary and adverbs and pretty descriptions and clever metaphors (I am a poet…). I queried agents; a bunch asked to see the whole ms but then passed, because I’d been deluded about its readiness. I revised some more.

Somewhere in there I queried Aqueduct Press, whose editors had been good to me during the publication of my speculative poetry collection, The Receptionist and Other Tales (all my poetry books feature ghosts and other flavors of uncanniness, but only The Receptionist is speculative through and through). The verse novella at the heart of it was named to the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, something I never would have thought I could even be in the running for.

Revise and resubmit was Aqueduct’s verdict, with some challenging, even deflating advice that I quickly recognized the utter justice of. More brainstorming, more character and plot overhauls, and a lot of the smaller screw-tightening fine-tooth-combing stuff. And then, a couple of weeks ago, with yet more notes about revision because that’s the writing life, came the offer of a contract.

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

swamp

 

And the winner of the Big Poetry Giveaway is…

Poet and blogger Joseph Harker! I’ve never met him but just looked him up and his last post for NaPoWriMo, “Adam and Steve,” is pretty great. Nice list of favorite poets, too. I’ll be sending him my latest, The Receptionist and Other Talesand Feral by Janet McAdams.

Thanks to Susan Rich for organizing this and to everyone who put themselves into the lottery–27 people, three cubed and always my favorite number. The process: I counted down and gave everyone a number, making sure that the people who posted multiple comments were only counted once. Then I used a random number generator to determine the digit.

If you didn’t win and still want The Receptionist, it’s only $9 from Aqueduct Press, or $6 for an ebook. Or if you can review or teach it, ask for a complimentary review copy. Contact me at wheelerlm (at) wlu.edu if you want a signed book. I’ll also be at WisCon in late May and, this coming Friday, I’m reading new poems at Chroma Projects gallery in Charlottesville, Virginia–that’s May 3rd, 6 pm, in conjunction with a show by visual artist Carolyn Capps called “We Are Not Our Work.” Much of what I’ve been doing during NaPoWriMo is generating new pieces in response to her collages. It’s been really fun but now I have to revise them and read them while the linguistic paint’s still wet. Yikes.

I did keep to the NaPoWriMo program, by the way, often drafting multiple poems in a 24 hour period–but being at an artists’ residency for 2 weeks in the middle of April helped. Some days my output was extremely lame and yesterday, in the very last evening of obligation, I almost decided to bag it entirely. I’ll leave you with the poem from the 29th, one of those I-just-don’t-have-the-energy-for-this days. I was inspired when a former student, now a teacher at a middle school in Baltimore with a community garden, tweeted sadly that there aren’t enough poems about asparagus in the world. Poor neglected vegetable. I tweeted back:

spar grass loves spring’s steamy mood:
from woody shoot to point d’amour
a short and terribly tender fuse

Poets, go revise your April brainstorms, read as much verse as you can get your eyeballs on, and eat your sexy delicious greens.