- This is my twenty-fifth fall teaching poetry at my first real job, at a liberal arts college in Virginia. I never thought I would stay this long.
- When I arrived, I was twenty-six with a new PhD and limited experience. A bunch of publications and a bazillion classes later, I am a better teacher, scholar, and poet, but I am still learning.
- During the same period, I brought into the world and helped raise two children. Five days ago, we moved the youngest into his first college dorm. He seems to be enjoying orientation but also has an appetite for academic work. His classes start tomorrow.
- So much change! This Labor Day weekend, I helped settle the eldest into a third-floor studio in a Philadelphia brownstone so she can start HER first real job. Her furnishings include items from my own post-graduation apartment: wooden chairs we picked up at a college surplus sale and a table we bought with one of Chris’ first paychecks as a high school teacher.
- It was fun to have a little spending money after a couple of years of grad-student penury, to buy a couch rather than lug a castoff away from a New Brunswick curb!
- Chris loved that teaching job, where he had stellar colleagues. The high school gig he started once we moved to Virginia was less rewarding in all ways.
- He taught there a while; then was a stay-at-home dad for a few years; then earned an MFA in fiction; then adjunct-taught at my college; and then, twenty years after the big move, earned a tenure-track slot in my department. He loves his job again.
- I mostly love mine, but I’ve seen it change massively. In the 90s, many students were amazing and some colleagues were role models, but classes were big, loads heavy. I still work sixty hours a week during the term but I can serve the students better; it feels saner.
- And they’re different students–more diverse in every way, in a century growing hotter by the minute. Demographics and politics change the job; these students need different things from me.
- I like change, I’ve realized, or at least some of it.
- Change is built into academic life. Tired of a certain course dynamic? No worries. The term is nearly over. You can reboot radically any minute now.
- Writing is like that, too. Within a poem, you pivot. Between projects, you reinvent what you aspire to do.
- Maybe I’m more fond of pivoting than some people?
- As I become an empty-nester, I am also becoming a stronger prose writer. My forthcoming novel will be called Unbecoming and it concerns midlife transitions.
- I’ll be doing final edits on the novel this fall, in between classes and committee work and grant applications and Shenandoah work. Yikes.
- I’m doing final edits on my forthcoming poetry book, The State She’s In, this week. Hard work, but fun, too.
- We have a launch date for the poetry book: March 17th, with prelaunch copies available at AWP!
- Awesome! Terrifying!
- This poetry book, my fifth full-length collection, feels like a big one.
- Everything feels momentous right now. Cusp, limen, hinge.
- My cat Ursula isn’t interested. She alternately sits on my neck, so I can’t type this post, and bites my toes, so I can’t type this post.
- When my daughter was applying for policy jobs in D.C., she felt anxious about it. Understandable, I thought–what a transition!–but I also admit I felt impatient. What would be the next step in her life, and therefore in mine?
- When she started applying for teaching jobs instead, her anxiety shifted to excitement. (Oh, I thought: it wasn’t just anxiety before, but inner struggle over a deeper uncertainty.) This Thursday, exactly one week after submitting her first four teaching applications, everything clicked. She was hired by a progressive preschool, a place that seems like a great fit for her–to start five days later. Double yikes.
- Follow the excitement is a pretty good life motto. It’s certainly a good way to write. If a project feels bogged down, I try to pivot, play around, think about what would make it fun again.
- Paychecks are important; doing useful work in the world is important. But the biggest question on my mind (besides, um, can I really meet all my obligations this school year?) is: how can I make these sad, hard, exhausting, exciting, whirlwind changes also, somehow, fun?
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?
Should I wear the top hat or tiara while teaching Yeats tomorrow? Poe thinks it’s a stupid question.
People keep asking me how I feel about turning fifty tomorrow. One answer is: lucky. I’m back in the swing of teaching after a difficult summer, and I find it as rewarding as ever. My spouse and kids are well. My friends and family are kind to me, writing me poems and giving me silly headgear and treating me to fancy drinks and meals. My home is not flooded; I am not at risk of deportation. I can do useful work in the world and I sometimes even get paid for it.
This birthday also makes me feel frustrated. Writing itself, as I’ve often said here, is hard and slow, but somehow that labor seems satisfying in its own right. Seeking publication, not so much. Getting the queries and submissions out is nitpicky work, time-consuming, and demoralizing. There’s no alternative except giving up, though, and I think I have a few decades more fight in me. Hope it’s true.
The day I turned forty, I stomped around feeling just furious about it. What an indignity! But so far, I’m not experiencing even a mild irritation about fiftyness. An increased urgency about my writing, maybe, but that started kicking in a couple of years ago, when my eldest left for college. I began a major transition then–during the same autumn my mother was diagnosed with lymphoma–and those experiences make a mere birthday feel less significant. I mean, bring on the cake and all, but a number doesn’t change you the way altered relationships do.
When I blew out the candles last year, I’m pretty sure I wished for book contracts. What I have in mind this year is bloody persistence. My will to keep trying faltered for a while in June and July, when I was struggling through one of the more serious slumps I’ve known. My determination has since returned, a steady burn in the brain (or is that a hot flash?). I plan to keep tending and feeding it with all of my art, until a voice tells me, one of these years, “Okay, you can cool it now.”
Thanks for a thin bright stream of oxygen lately from three magazines whose editors gave space to my poems: storySouth, Copper Nickel, and Notre Dame Review. I’m looking forward, in the coming months, for more poems in Ocean State Review, Barrow Street, Sweet, Cherry Tree Review, Cold Mountain Review, Salamander, Blackbird, Raintown Review, and Water~Stone Review. I also have essays scheduled to be published in Crab Orchard Review, on Claudia Emerson’s early poems and her time teaching at W&L, and in Massachusetts Review, on Edna St. Vincent Millay’s abortions. That’s all pretty good, right? Happy damn birthday to me.
Writing that out was actually pretty helpful. It reminds me that pissed-off forty-year-old me would kick fifty-year-old me in the shins for those feelings of discouragement.
And on the subject of taking heart: maybe I’ll see you in Charlottesville this Saturday the 30th, 4-6 pm, at the 1000 Writers for Change reading at Writer House, organized by Polly Lazaron. Joining that crowd of makers and listeners seems like a hopeful thing to do.