Maps, teaching schedules, and other demented pre-writing adventures

Questions I have researched recently for a writing project:

  • Suture kits and how to stitch up wounds
  • Microquakes, subsidence, and local geology
  • The effects of psychedelic mushrooms and hazards of their long-term use (lots of this via my work computer, yikes)
  • Fungal behavior generally
  • The properties of copper, where it comes from, and the various ways it’s stolen
  • The stages of death from congestive heart failure, and how it’s treated at each stage
  • Home hair dyes, including instructions and the names of colors
  • Local bus schedules
  • What Bengali terms of address to family members a man who grew up in India might use
  • What weird situations a home health nurse might encounter; what the ordinary procedures are and what equipment is needed for them; who staffs the clinic that’s the nurse’s home base
  • Phases of the moon in the summer of 2021

I have a hard time getting students to incorporate research into their creative writing, even the quick Wikipedia kind, but I can’t write much in any genre without internet access–and having friends to interview about mundane details is also a big help. In poetry, specificity is everything. Studying scientific processes helps me understand the world and myself; the textures of unusual words make the language pop. In fiction, people need to have jobs other than mine, and they need to walk around and be doing ordinary things when plot twists surprise them.

My process so far for the novel underway involves writing many pages in a mad rush then hitting pause to reflect on what the characters might think or do next, as well as what I’m missing about the properties of this fictional world and its residents’ patterns of behavior. I had worked out a lot before starting, but when I hit the 20,000 word mark I realized my plans were pretty vague after the opening. I’m at around 45,000 words now, not rereading too much but plunging forward, trying to hack out the basic shape of the story before I go back and make necessary alterations, because my sense of how it all needs to unfold keeps changing. I also know I’m falling into bad habits sometimes: for instance, I’m prone to summarizing action in a first draft and have to go back and dramatize it, as well as making the sentences much cleaner and the detail richer (which means my 45K words probably represent well over half the novel, plot-wise). It’s a lot like the discovery process you experience in the first draft of a poem–you need to see where it’s going before you can revise it, fit all the parts together smoothly. If you know everything about your destination from the outset, the results might not possess that essential element of surprise.

Another thing my writer-spouse thinks is unusual in my process: I do a ton of work that won’t go into the book. For Unbecoming, set at a small college, I mapped out the entire curriculum and every professor’s teaching load just to figure out when two key characters could meet for coffee (surely overkill, but that’s how my brain works, especially post-chairing). In my current project, space is really important, so I’m developing an increasingly detailed hand-drawn map of my fictional county. It’s not Yoknapatawpha by a long shot, and I’m not intending that Tolkienish move of including a map if this ever becomes a real book. I just need to know where stuff happens and how long it takes to drive there. It’s too much exposition to explain it all in prose, but I need to know it makes sense.

I am drafting poems occasionally, particularly when I get stuck on the novel for a few days. I’ll be driving my son back to college in a week, so there’s lots of planning to do, as well as the usual pile-up of recommendation requests and “do this now!” emails. No other publishing news these days–August is always slow–but I have a virtual reading from Unbecoming scheduled for September 16th “at” A Novel Idea bookstore in Philadelphia (sign up for the Zoom here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-evening-with-lesley-wheeler-author-of-unbecoming-online-tickets-117838653585). I also received a super-nice note about The State She’s In from Denise Duhamel, a distinguished poet whom I don’t know personally but whose work I’ve long admired–I’ve taught her books a few times and even ran an independent study on her complete works maybe a decade ago (!). I am so grateful when someone reads a book of mine and sends me a note or gives me a shout-out–it reminds me to reciprocate, which is one of the pleasures of #thesealeychallenge. (One more week to go!)

I’ll sign out with a George Carlin bit I’ve been thinking about a lot. Tensions around the novel coronavirus feel high, even among people with whom I mostly agree. Obviously the anti-mask campaigners are dumb and toxic. Within the rainbow of behaviors sane people exercise, though, there’s a pretty wide range of opinions: whether it’s okay to drive to a lake house for a few days, or order take-out, or take part in a small, socially-distanced event with some friends. Whether it’s better parenting to send your kids to school, too, or keep them at home, and what policies schools and universities should have in the first place. I have opinions, like everyone else, and they’re conditioned by my experiences and temperament, like everyone else’s. Because I’m prone to depression and anxiety, for instance, I have a bigger fear than others would of the psychic costs of isolation to children and teens. I often feel judged for being too slack on one hand or too uptight on the other–which is my problem, I know, I’m too keen a reader of what other people are thinking–and I keep sliding into being judgmental myself. My strategy, besides taking lots of deep breaths, is to remember Carlin’s point about how myopic it can be to draw bright lines between right and wrong. The very high costs of this virus in the U.S. are largely the government’s fault–systemic–not the fault of the dog-walker who gets too close to me on the trail. It’s important not to make a terrible situation worse, but none of us is sure of the exact right answers to pandemic math. We need to be kind to each other, not least because we can’t always see the factors that lead people to make the choices they do. I’m working on resisting the reflex division of the world into idiots and maniacs.

(Funny that I remembered that bit as “assholes” and “morons”–my inner NJ driver resurfaces, I guess.) And since I went down another research rabbit-hole looking for Carlin bits, here’s something that’s earlier and spikier. I read this as Carlin seeming to play to the middle at first–mocking all kinds of extremism–and then showing his hand. There IS a limit to tolerance of different approaches to the world.

The Yellow Wall-paper by Charlotte Lesley Perkins Wheeler Gilman

It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer. I would say a haunted house–there is something infected about it. Else, why should it be let so cheaply, and why have stood so long untenanted, during a global pandemic? John laughs at me, but one expects that in marriage.

You see he does not believe anyone is sick! If a Republican of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression–a slight hysterical tendency–what is one to do? So I take hydroxychloroqine and Airborne, vodka tonics and exercise, until I am required to work again in the hospitality industry. My brother is also a Republican, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

Personally, I disagree with their ideas. But John says the very worst thing I can do is to think about Covid-19, and I confess it always makes me feel bad.

So I will let it alone and talk about the house. It is the most beautiful place with a delicious garden! But I don’t like my room a bit, where I use my laptop to design reopening plans to submit to the governor. It is big and airy, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways. It was an insane asylum first and then a gymnasium, I should judge, for the windows are barred and there are rings and things in the walls. The paper is stripped off in great patches all around my desk, as if a person wanted to refresh the decor then fell into melancholy because there is no future and no one will ever again have houseguests anyway.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. One of those untraceable patterns committing every statistic sin. It is devious enough to confuse any epidemiologist, pronounced enough to terrify and demand study, and when you follow the uncertain rising curves for long enough they suddenly leap out of sight–plunge up at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in contradictions. It is a lurid sunset orange in some places, an unclean sulfur in others.

There comes John and I must put this away–he hates to have me blog.

*****

We have been here two weeks. John is away all day giving dishonest testimony to Congress. I am glad my paranoia is not justified!

John calls me a blessed little snowflake and teases me as if I have a crush on Dr. Fauci. John knows there is no reason to worry, and that satisfies him. He even scoffs at me about this wall-paper! There is a recurrent spot where microbes rise in plumes. I fancy I can detect a sub-pattern in certain lights, and behind it a strange, provoking, faceless sort of figure that seems to keep washing its hands.

But otherwise really I’m getting fond of the room. It is so remote from bad air and fundraising dinners! I can doomscroll for long hours without being perceived.

There’s a member of the extensive and unquarantined house staff on the stairs.

*****

It dwells in my mind so! The pattern starts at the bottom, rises acutely, dips in some places and plateaus in others. Then it climbs again, over and over. It is a constant irritant to the normal mind and I exhaust myself attempting to make sense of it. I will take a nap I guess.

*****

I don’t know why I should blog this. I don’t feel able. John would think it absurd. He says I mustn’t lose my faith in the president, and has me take Breitbart, to say nothing of vitamin C and rare meat.

I lie in bed and look at the paper. Behind the outside pattern the dim shapes get clearer every day. It is always the same shape, only very numerous. And it is like people posting and tweeting alarming news at a social distance. I don’t like it a bit. I wonder–I begin to think–I wish the pharmaceutical industry would hurry up and release a vaccine!

*****

There are always new infection vectors in the wall-paper and the virus gets into my hair. In this hot weather it is awful, I cannot even walk in the garden. The CDC recommendations go round and round and round and round–they make me dizzy!

But I really have discovered something. The front pattern does move–and no wonder! The people behind the bars shake them! Nobody could climb through the pattern–it strangles so; but I see a woman wearing a mask and brandishing an absentee ballot.

*****

John has contracted the novel coronavirus and is complaining downstairs. He says the Democrats gave it to him and also that it was engineered by Chinese scientists. How he betrays himself!

I don’t want to go outside. I won’t, even if my employer asks me to. It is so pleasant to be in this great room with the masked social media people and read angry opinion pieces as I please. I have locked the door and secreted the key in the hydroxychloroqine bottle. How John does call and pound! It is no use, Republican, you can’t open it!

“For God’s sake,” he cries between coughing fits, “why won’t you let me in? It is only the common cold.”

“I have got scientific rationality at last,” say I, “in spite of the government’s denials! And I’ve made a mask of the wall-paper and you can’t take it off!”

Now I see John in the garden, opening the hatch to the survivalist bunker stocked with guns and canned goods. But I can outlast him because there is sourdough starter under my bed, and toilet paper, and dark chocolate, and useless calendars with all my appointments crossed out. I can creep the internet, cackling and screaming, until the spring thaw, now that I am perfectly sane.

Virtual launches and figuring out how to help

The first books and mags from #virtualawp come in, including some freebies

When my students asked me last week–during our final in-person classes, as it turns out–how I thought the virus would develop or whether W&L would switch to online instruction soon, I offered guesses with the caveat, “But I’m not an authority on this. My thoughts about poetry are worth something; otherwise I’m just an average person who reads the news.”

These days I don’t feel like an authority on poetry, either–at least not about how to generate enthusiasm for poems when most-in person gatherings are canceled. My fifth full-length collection, The State She’s In, officially launches this week. I’m proud of this book and have been laboring hard to set up readings this spring, basically performing the job of a part-time publicist as well as full-time professor. They’re dropping away fast. Pre-launch copies have been available from the publisher, Tinderbox Editions, since AWP (I think the discount code AWP2020 still works), but I wasn’t able to sign it there, and I just postponed my local book party, too. These cancellations absolutely need to happen, never mind all that shopping I did for goody bags, stickers, chocolate eggs, and pink ribbon. Chris says don’t worry, it’s just a delay, I can still do those events latter. I hope he’s right, but in the meantime I’m trying to figure out what I CAN do.

I’d love your ideas, but what’s currently on my docket: I have a few guest-blog-type-things in the works as well as possible reviewers, and of course I’ll use social media (although I’m limiting my own time on FB and Twitter lately). I got some new author photos done, below. My copies of The State She’s In arrived a few days ago and this week I’ll be sending them where they need to go.

My latest brainstorm is to use my blog to promote other poetry collections launching into this virus-blasted landscape. Effort on behalf of others tends to boomerang, right? I’ll definitely focus on books from little presses, not the ones already attaining media spotlight. I’m currently thinking I’ll begin each post with my own micro-review, maybe just a few sentences describing what attracts me to the work, then ask three questions of the author. I’m pondering what might be good questions to ask, not too run-of-the-mill. If you have notions about how to do this, or you want to draw my attention to your OWN new book, I’d like to hear from you, so just reply below or on FB or by email (wheelerlm at wlu dot edu). Digital ARCs and review copies would be welcome, and I’ve already ordered and pre-ordered some books I’m interested in. My plan is to start off with The State She’s In then feature as many new books as I can, maybe one a week.

Oh, and poets: Shenandoah just opened to poetry submissions. As the website says: “Our spring 2020 reading period for POETRY will be from March 15–March 31, 2020. Please send us prayers, spells, charms, curses, blessings, invocations—poems that try to make change happen. All forms, styles, and procedures are welcome. A selection will appear in a special Shenandoah portfolio in the Spring 2021 issue.” Reading subs is another way for me to serve poetry in a pandemic–send spells for worldwide healing, please, or curses upon the political leaders who are failing to stem pandemic! 

Of course I’ll be trying to manage all this in a state of intense distraction. My tree-pollen allergies are kicking in, totally unlike coronavirus symptoms, but every time I have a hot flash I whip out the thermometer. I have to gear up for 4 more weeks of my 3 current courses, THEN for my 4-week May term, which we’ve just been informed will be virtual, too. My husband and son are making a quick run up to Haverford to pick up his things prior to the beginning of my son’s own online courses; it’s necessary, although I’m not thrilled they’re traveling. I wake up in the middle of the night concerned about my eighty-year-old mother and vulnerable friends who are self-quarantining. It’s a pretty big burden of worry for all of us.

I’m sending out all the love, friends, and will be posting again soon in solidarity with poets and publishers. Take care.

First box of my beauties–yay?

#Virtualbookfair, disappointment, little gifts

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This week has been a bummer. I voted for Elizabeth Warren, whom I love love love but who did poorly across the country in Super Tuesday. It’s been clear for many weeks that she wasn’t going to win, so I’m more resigned than some to this country being a sexist retrograde mess, but still… I’m also worried about coronavirus–not freaked out yet but worried, less for myself than for all the immune-compromised people out there, including my mother and many friends, some of whom lives very close to the quarantine implosion in Seattle. Further, colleges are a petri dishes, although I can see that mine is taking this chance of pandemic seriously. So many people at W&L just got back from travel to hot zones, so I and many others think the bug is already here, incubating. One little fact that struck me: I have a relative who’s a VP at a major insurance company and she said they’ve been preparing for one of these hundred-year major pandemics for 5 years, because it’s due. If Big Money is worried, the risk seems more real. I sure hope this is a false alarm; I’d be delighted to have egg on my face. I am, after all, a Cold War baby who did nuclear bomb drills in grade school–the threat of apocalypse has always been on my mind. But, worrisome.

Also, and I know this will rightly seem trivial to many, I’m so sad about AWP. I decided to opt out for several reasons: I have a cold and didn’t want to expose people to it on the plane, nor deal with their alarm at my sniffles, nor pass through security wariness. Further, one of my panels got canceled, I knew attendance levels were crashing, and my press (very understandably) decided to not to come. Advance sales at AWP are a big deal for the success and visibility of a poetry collection, which is my best yet and which I’ve been hoping would make a tiny splash. If you’re interested in it, I hope you’ll consider ordering it at an excellent discount from the Tinderbox Editions website. Just use the discount code AWP2020. In fact, check out all your favorite small presses, many of which canceled and are giving similar #virtualbookfair deals. I’ve been buying a lot of books myself.

There are compensations, plus more than my share of good things happening. I sorely needed some rest and time, and since I had already arranged makeup assignments for my classes, I’m taking it. Bonus: many friends who couldn’t attend AWP are enjoying these bookfair perks. A few lovely people have lately offered to review The State She’s In (which, by the way, is a pretty political book–let me know if you’d like a copy for reviewing or teaching). If you can, I hope you’ll look at some of my recent publications: poems in Kestrel and Literary Matters; microreviews of recent collections by Erin Hoover and Amy Meng in the very first issue of Revolute; an interview in the anthology Inside the Verse Novel, edited by Linda Weste. Please, friends, stay well, and if you get stuck at home, read poetry!