I struggle to make time during the working day to read

Sometimes people say to me, hey don’t you do that thing where you turn off the internet so you can work? To which I am forced to say, "No, I used to, but I don’t anymore."

Just outgrew it I suppose. The problem is actually that I got a really big iPad that doesn’t fit into the lockboxx I was using to lock up my devices. Also, now that I have a baby, it doesn’t make sense to lock up my cell. What if I need to google something like "Are nontoxic crayons actually toxic?" or "What is that really loud screaming on Bernal Hill?" Can’t do it. Can’t be sans internet.

What I have done however is that I identified that one major source of stress and distraction was constantly checking for business emails: acceptances, news about manuscripts, responses from agents, etc. And I now have a personal email and a business email, and I only check my business email at 9 AM and at 3 PM each day (I am only logged into it from my laptop), which covers, essentially, the beginning and the end of the New York business day.

But really, that’s about it. I also don’t have the strongest productivity standards anymore. I don’t track my word-count or even have set goals for what I am going to do each day. Like right now I’ve gotten comments back on my YA book and am thinking of a direction for edits, but it’s mostly conceptual. I’m working on an essay re book club discussions (and why they’re often so short and unsatisfying). And I’ve got a few other things cooking, but you know how it is.

Hegel would say that initially I worked to tame procrastination, but then I realized that procrastination is an essential part of the process, so I sublated it, negating the aspect of my anti-procrastination routine that was actually harming me, and now I have a broader concept of work which incorporates what I used to think of as work and what I used to think of as procrastination.

Actually what he’d probably say is why is that man dressed as a woman. Stupid Hegel. You know you could’ve written all this stuff more clearly! You know you could’ve done it!

Anyway, yes I am still reading Hegel. I’ve actually come to believe that reading is by far the more important part of working. One writes in order to write and to produce and to make one’s mark on the world, but generally speaking, at least when they’re at my stage of their careers, writers write too much and read too little.

There are solid reasons for this. A friend who is in the film business has been talking about the golden handcuffs: when you want to be in a more creative job category, but the money you’re making in post-production or script supervision or whatever is just too good and you can’t afford to start over. Writers get to a stage where they are being rewarded too well for doing what they do. Like, right now thrillers and dystopias are both making a comeback in YA. It would be a really good career move for me to write a dystopian trans girl thriller and sell it to a different publisher for more money. Instead I’m reading Hegel. It doesn’t really make sense.

But at the same time, to have a career you need to grow and improve. You need to undertake new things and new aims. For instance, my science fiction has really been reinvigorated by my recent reading, and I’ve written some really cool sci-fi stories. You don’t get paid for that right away, but that comes back to you later, and people are like, wow, this person kept improving.

If I was to make a really facile Marxist-style critique of the publishing industry, I’d say that it actively incentivizes a lack of growth (by providing financial incentives to stay in your own lane) and then ultimately it punishes you for not growing (they just write the same old stuff). And then on the flip side, it continually asks you to write things that are new and different, and then calls those things unpublishable. It asks you to do the work, for free, of integrating your fresh ideas with the market, and then it acts like it’s doing you a favor by publishing them.

But how could it be different? I mean don’t get me wrong, it would be great to have a union, so writers would be treated better and paid more fairly, but they have unions in Hollywood and they still have this same punishing feeling of being sucked dry. There is just something fundamentally difficult about trying to make money off of creativity. It’s like trying to make money off of sports–most people earn a living doing stuff where an average effort and average outcome is more than good enough–but artists and athletes need to be consistently exceptional. So what can you do? I mean, the solution, as with everything, is to have a better publishing industry, yes, but mostly to have a better society: one where failure doesn’t seem so punishing, where there aren’t such inequalities of wealth and access, and where more people have more leisure time, across the board, regardless of their work, to things like becoming better writers and thinkers.

I think once we expected things like Kickstarters and Patreons to provide a more flexible income for writers, but if anything, these seem even more likely to disincentivize improvement. Like is anyone really gonna pay into a Patreon for ten years while a writer reads Hegel and thinks up their next big idea? No. When you pay into a Patreon you expect regular content, not so much as a reward, but simply as proof that the writer is working. So, if anything, by tying the writer so directly to their audience’s expectations, Patreon disincentivizes growth even more than a big corporate structure does.

Luckily I am not in charge of fixing the world. But all I can say is, I devote some of the working day to reading. And it’s hard. And I often find it difficult to concentrate. And I sometimes have to make myself not write, purely so I can read. But I know that ultimately the reading is more what I need to be doing.

Hegel helps me with the concept of having babies

Hello friends, so I’m sure other people have had this experience, but I had a child because my wife really really wanted to, and I wanted to make her happy. But in the leadup, I kept asking her, can you explain what meaning I’m supposed to get out of this? Why exactly do we want to do this?

If you thin about it, there is one rock-solid reason to have a child: you really really want to. But if you don’t have that strong desire, it becomes a rather difficult thing to explain why child-having is good. Because obviously you can’t have a child merely for the pleasure or the joy they might give you. For one thing, the joy might not arise. For another, it seems morally wrong to bring a human being into this world merely to serve your own emotional needs.

I would ask my wife, wait so are we having a child just because we want to? But is that right? I mean, why should the child’s entire existence be contingent on our wants and desires?

It’s very perplexing. But we did it, and we had the child, and it’s been pretty good. Generally speaking, people are like, "Once the baby is here, you’ll understand everything!" And I would say that didn’t happen. I was still like, what is the purpose of this experience? What should I be getting out of this?

On the other hand, it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I’d been led to believe it would be. We only had one child–we were both home because of the pandemic–she slept through the night relatively easily–and it was all fairly manageable. And she is definitely the cutest little baby person that’s ever existed, and she’s a joy to have around, and I love her and would die for her but more importantly am willing to ferry her around the house and watch her play with piles of laundry for hours and I don’t get too upset when she has tantrums, because whatever it’s gonna be over in fifteen minutes anyway. So that’s all fine.

But the other day, as I was watching her play on the downstairs bed with Rachel’s father, I had an epiphany: child-having is its own thing.

You just can’t explain it in terms of other activities you might undertake. It’s not a job. It’s not like creating a work of art. It’s not a gift, either to you or from you. It’s a very unique thing to do that is unlike every other thing you might do.

You have kids because that’s what you do. Just like your parents had and raised you, you have another child. And obviously it’s not totally disconnected from your own emotional needs and life goals, and obviously there is no moral imperative to have kids, but you also don’t need to justify it or even particularly to want it. Having a child is meaningful in itself. It comes with its own purpose. You have a duty to love the child and raise them well, regardless of how or why they came into the world. Many kids weren’t planned at all. The parents had no choice about whether to have them (I support a woman’s right to choose, but let’s say you’re a man and the baby’s mother chooses not to abort)–it doesn’t matter, you still have to love that baby and raise it well.

So yes, I still can’t say what meaning it has precisely, or what value it’s added to my life, but I don’t need to: raising a child is an end in itself. Even if you enter into it on a contingent basis, thinking it’ll improve your life, that contingency evaporates once the child comes.

As some people might be able to tell, I’ve been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and I’ve gotten to the part where he talks about how the ethical substance is the basis of two laws, the human law and the divine law. And the human law is actualized in the state and in society, while the divine law is actualized in the family life. I’m sure this isn’t comprehensible to you, but believe me, I’m making it a lot more comprehensible than it is in the book.

Anyway, it obviously breaks down, like all Hegel’s triads do eventually (the human being experiences the divine law as living, but the human law as dead, so blah blah blah, I haven’t gotten to the next part yet), but it made sense to me! There is something divine about the family life, the way it can provide meaning freely, without competition, without a zero-sum game, without taking anything away from other people.

Hegel is also big on how reason provides forms for things, but it’s lacking on the content. For instance, you can reason your way to "I should do something with my life", but what is the something? What is the specific content of that thing you should do.

Hegel seems to skate around the idea of where that content comes from. He can’t say ‘it should come from biological nature and necessity’ because then there’s no room for reason and self-determination, and at the same time he can’t say ‘it should come from reason’, because that is clearly false and impossible. He wants to say ‘the content comes from tradition’, but that too is problematic, because then there’s no need for philosophy.

It’s hard to say where the content comes from! The closest you can say is that it’s a dynamic process, where the individual grapples with tradition and with society and somehow they come to know the answer. But this is my answer: having kids is just not like other things; it is its own thing.

That being said, I’m definitely not having another one =]

close up photo of a red shoe
This was the photo that came up when I searched on an open-source image service for “hegel” – Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Adventures with dead German guys

ello friendly people of the world. I greet you from my bedroom, where I am trying to avoid the omicron. I have done nothing and gone nowhere since the omicron started to omicron.

Had a great holiday break. Did a lot of reading. Our baby is in a stage of her development where one can get rather a lot of reading done while watching her: she’ll spend minutes at a time playing with laundry or looking through her books or whatever it is she does on her own.

My plan after finishing Kant was to read Hegel, but somehow I got distracted by this book by Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, which is essentially a recap of contintental philosophy since Kant, and how it’s grappled with the idea of what Habermas calls "the philosophy of the subject" (essentially the notion that all a person can know is what comes from their own reason). For two hundred years, philosophers have attacked and undermined reason, and Habermas traces two essential lines of argument, which terminate essentially in Foucault and in Derrida. Foucault looks at the uses to which ideas are put and how they maintain certain power structures. Derrida tries to reconstruct the history of ideas and the things that are contained within those ideas in order to find out how their meaning was constituted. Habermas concludes that both of these approaches are sterile, because they rely on reason to undermine reason, and as such can’t really escape from "the philosophy of the subject".

It was really complicated, and it entailed numerous detours to figure out what exactly all these other guys were talking about. In this regard, I found the OUP’s series of Very Short Introductions to be very helpful. I believe I read entries on Heidegger, Hegel, Habermas, and a few others.

One philosopher who was missing an entry was Husserl, who created the phenomenological branch of philosophy: the study of consciousness from the interior. It’s very hard to explain, but I read a book of his too, Ideas, which essentially is a response to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. In it, Husserl tries to look at how ideas are formed and what grounding they have in experience. He inverts our usual categories (which is usual for continental philosophers) and says that everything we think and feel is what we know to be ‘real’ and everything we recieve as sensation is ‘transcendent’ (i.e. related to objects outside ourselves).

Philosophers have a lot of trouble with the concept of the ‘I’. Who am I? What am I? Ever since Decartes said Cogito Ergo Sum, philosophers have been trying to say "But what is thought? What does it mean to think? Who is doing the thinking?" They keep getting bogged down in language, because the structure of our language implies a subject for the verb ‘think’, but does the idea of a subject have any meaning in reality?

Husserl attempts to cut through this by defining conscioussness as attention. Our consciousness focuses on different things in succession. Sometimes it focuses on statements, which can indeed be ‘I’ statements. Other times it focuses on images or fancies (he’s fond of using the image of a flute-playing centaur as his image of something imaginary). And that focus is, to him, the essence of consciousness. The book is long and abstruse and much of it is about breaking down the kind of relations that things can have to each other. He has to create his own terminology, and he tries to talk about how our mind uses sense to create objects–we see some stuff, for instance, and we constitute that stuff as ‘a tree’–and then we have various judgements about this tree. The judgement is the ‘real’ thing, because we know our judgement exists. For instance, if our judgement is ‘this tree is a hypothetical fancy that I am using in a daydream’ then the part that is absolutely true is that you are daydreaming about the object, even if trees don’t necessarily exist in reality. It’s kind of complex, but the point is to break down what it is possible to know with absolute certainty. And what you can know with absolute certainty is what you think about a thing, even if your judgement doesn’t hold empirically or if the thing itself isn’t real.

This all seems kind of useless, I know, but it has an odd artistry to it. A lot of philosophy from the past two hundred years is very concerned with the question "What is it possible to know?" And for many philosophers the answer is, essentially, either "nothing" or "nothing that a person can put accurately into language". So to be able to pry loose any kind of knowledge from the realm of the unknowable is a real achievement.

Anyway so I read that book, and now I’m reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. It’s rewarding, but extremely slow going, and I don’t think I can summarize right now.

In terms of writing news, everything is great. Have a call with my editor this Friday to get back notes on the YA novel. Am still waiting to hear from my agent about the literary book. It’s quite nice to have childcare again and to be able to set aside some dedicated time to work. I wrote a lot of short pieces–mostly shortly stories–over the last month, and now I need to put some order to the mess and figure out what is worth submitting.

Hope you all are staying safe, and that if yo have the Omicroms (as apparently something like a quarter of the people in America do) that you have a mild case!

Wrapping up 2021

Hey friends, typically at the end of the calendar year I do a series of wrap-up posts. I think I started because I read lots of other writer blogs, and I enjoyed their wrap-up posts so I was like…why not mine! I also used to collect reams upon reams of yearly stats about how many words I’d written, how many submissions I’d made, how many rejections I’ve gotten, etc, so there was a lot to share.

But ever since I stopped collecting those stats, nigh on four or five years ago, I’ve lost a little steam when it comes to wrapping up. Still, it’s not the worst exercise, and it’s nice to look back upon the year and such. So I thought this year I’d do it all in one.

Publishing (Agented)

I imagine virtually everybody who reads this blog does so because they are a writer of some sort, whether published or aspiring. So let’s start there. When it comes to writing, I think it’s most fruitful to divide it into two subcategories, publishing the work and writing the work, because they’re very different, and they occur at different times–so you’re often attempting to publish work that you wrote last year.

In this case, I also want to divide publishing between agented, unagented, and self-publishing. In the agented category comes my young adult novels, but also everything else I want to write for big presses.

Last year I parted ways (amicably, as they say) with my agent, and I spent much of the year looking unsuccessfully for a new one. During this time I queried primarily with my literary book (along with a crime novel that I also wrote). And…it was depressing. I got a lot of rejections. Literary fiction is a hard market! (Crime fiction, at least of the sort I wrote, is even harder).

But I had an epiphany around this time last year. I thought, “Why not just focus on everything I can write and move forward without an agent.” And that led me to writing poetry, stories, essays, and a novel proposal for my editor at Harper. I didn’t think I could sell another book in YA, or even that I wanted to. But I got a good idea, and was like, what have I got to lose?

Around February, my editor indicated the book was going to acquisitions, so I went back out to agents (those who still had my literary manuscript and a few who I resubmitted to), and of course I immediately got four offers. I was most concerned with making sure my agent knew I really want to sell a literary novel. I had also rewritten the first 100 pages of my book, in order to give it more plot and heft (it completely changed the voice and tone of the book), and one agent who’d come close with the last version said this one had hit the mark! I did my due diligence, which entailed emailing 20-30 clients, current and former, of each agent who offered, and the moment I started hearing their testimonials, I cut short the beauty contest and went with him. I dunno, the fit just seemed really right.

I am hesitant to say anything too good, since things often turn sour on the second or third manuscript, but so far it’s been great! I love Christopher. He’s excellent. He does things I’ve never heard of any other agent doing, like reading my previously-published books and reading, un-asked, a first draft of the book that’s under contract with Harper. So far, many thumbs up.

Anyway, the book sold to Harper, which was great, and I spent most of the year writing it, and just turned in a first draft. I have to say, they still could hate it and the deal could fall apart, but it would definitely sell somewhere else if they did. Also, it was nice just to work. I woke up each day and worked on the book. I was like…is this what it’s like to have a job? This is nice! The stakes felt now enough, since I’d never expected to sell the book in the first place. Oh wait, but now we’re going into writing, shoot. So let’s move on:

Publishing (Unagented)

This covers everything else. I forget exactly what’s sold this year and what’s sold in the last. I was asked, I know, to be part of two anthologies. One is a YA sports anthology edited by Dahlia Adler and Jennifer Iaccopelli, and the other is a YA LGBT spec fic anthology edited by Saundra Mitchell. So there’s those two. But I think that’s all I had short-fiction-wise.

I placed a poem in Vellum and another in Cherry Tree, which was fun. And the big thing is I placed my first essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, followed shortly by another in The Chronicle Review. I’ve long wanted to get into literary / cultural criticism, and for a while I did book reviews, but here’s the thing: book reviews are boring. They’re boring to write and to read. So I’ve been wondering how to write and place more expansive criticism–the kind of thing that Lionel Trilling did.

But that’s kind of a closed guild! It’s very hard to know who takes what and what you can place where! I wrote a few pieces that nobody seemed to want. I have a phobia of pitching unwritten articles, because it just seems, like, I just don’t like how editors can commission something and then if they don’t like it, they can just not pay you! Or make you do a bunch of edits, round and round, until you quit. So I was like, I’m only going to pitch things I’ve already written. I developed a technique where I go in with a pitch, and then I follow by being like, “The essay’s already written, see below.”

I sent stuff to LARB a bunch of times, and I got ignored, or people said they’d left the journal. Then finally someone forwarded me to the Editor in Chief, Boris, and he took my piece, and the rest is history. From this, I will note, I’ve developed the theory that it’s always best to pitch the top of the masthead, rather than below.

This is something I noticed with agents too. You’re much more likely to get a response, or at least I was, if I pitched the senior agents, rather than the young’uns. I think this is for a simple reason: young agents might not be the best at their jobs. They simply might not know how to stay on top of their queries. They also sometimes are a little high and mighty: it’s the narcissism of small differences. Because their status is only infinitesimally higher than the people who are querying them, they set very strong boundaries. Whereas people at the top get fewer queries, oftentimes, because they seem less approachable, but they have also turned hungriness into a rule, and they’re instinctively on the hunt for what seems salable. Moreover, if they like you, they don’t need to clear it with anyone or ask permission.

So there you go, query the top rather than below, and that goes for editors too. I put this most of the way down the article so only the real fans will get to it.

Anyway, that led to a spate of essay-writing, and I’ve since had essays accepted (I think) at LARB and LitHub too. It’s hard to tell whether something is accepted, since people are like, “This looks interesting, we’ll send edits later.” I’m like…and then you’ll publish what I write? But I don’t say anything, because I too am genteel.

Also under the technical heading of unagented writing is my poor, very-much-lamented sexy trans woman assassin novel. I pitched this to a bunch of small presses at the beginning of the year, and the only person who responded was Charles Ardai, from Hard Case Crime (it’s clearly wrong for him). I still think the book is good, but there’s just no market for action-thrillers by and for women, particularly with diverse or queer themes, not even in the small press, annoyingly. But I just re-upped on my queries, so we’ll see what happens.

Writing (Self)

Also this year I published my Cynical Guide To The Publishing Industry. This is a book I wrote for fun–sort of a labor of love–while I was looking for an agent last year, and just as Truman Capote needed his subjects to be executed before he could publish his book, I needed to find an agent before I could publish mine.

This book contains many, though not all, of the insights I’ve gleaned about the publishing industry. Here’s the thing: most books about writing, and most writing advice in general, are geared towards the average writer. And the average writer isn’t very good. The problem with their manuscript is they simply haven’t worked hard enough on it, or written enough in their life, or read enough stories, so the manuscript is childish and boring and unpublishable.

But I don’t write advice for that person: what’s the point? They need to write more, until their writing gets good. I write for the person who’s got something that’s genuinely worthwhile. Now you might ask, how do I know if my writing is worthwhile? Well…I don’t know and I don’t care. I simply assume that it is. I’d rather give encouragement to a hundred lunatics than to turn away one person who could really use the advice that I give.

So my book isn’t about how to write a book, it’s about the barriers that prevent good books from being published. And that’s a perspective you’ll rarely see. It’s also pretty funny.

Now my father asked, “Was it worth the time you spent to write it and the money you spent promoting it and getting a cover designed?” The answer is, on a financial level, probably not. I don’t think it’s sold more than three hundred copies. But it’s nice to have something I can hawk with an easy heart. If someone likes my writing or my blog, they can purchase that book with the knowledge that they’ll get more of what they like. It’s sort of like having a patreon: it’s a way of converting fandom into money. And it’s a way of letting people buy in to me as a writer.

I also think the book is just genuinely the change I want to see in the world. I really do think its viewpoints and ideas will seep into the publishing world, especially its outer fringes, where people are still confused about what’s happening inside, and it’ll have some positive effect.

Finally, it was fun to put out something that was totally unmediated. I wrote it, and now people can order it and read exactly what I wrote.

All in all, I was pleased with the process, and with how much the result looks like a real, actual book.


There are always ups and downs. In the case of 2021, I think the toughest thing was revising my literary book. I wrote a draft, and I sent it out to friends, got their advice, and essentially rewrote it, producing two drafts of this book in one year. I felt at times my enthusiasm for the project start to wane, and I’m not sure I can do one more total rewrite.

I also spent a lot of time trying to apply my own advice to the book and to anticipate every possible criticism someone could have and build defenses into it. As a result, the book is a lot more thematically dense. I put in a bunch of race-type themes into the book to make it more salable, but they came out rather well (I didn’t say anything I don’t believe).

There was a lot of wailing though, and a lot of wondering if I’d ever get to the end.

The YA novel, in contrast, was a more pleasant writing experience. I think it took about two months, once I really got going, and while I thought at first I wouldn’t feel that personal connection to the book and to the characters (since I’d written the proposal first, and since the book was under contract when I began to write, I thought that the added pressure would hamper the emotions). But in the end, that didn’t happen. I really enjoyed the world of the book, and the places it took me to, and I think it’s the best young adult novel I’ve ever done!

I also wrote various shorter pieces, most of which were under a thousand words (aside from the essays, which tended to be more in the 2000-3000 range).

In terms of the words themselves, the biggest change has been more attention paid to the acoustic properties of the text. I hear the writing more in my mind as I write, and I’m practicing a lot more alliteration, assonance, and rhyme. I have no idea, to be honest, how it reads to you, and I worry it might be overdone, but it makes the writing a lot more fun for me, and it creates a strong incentive to find more unique, or at least different, combinations of words. The problem, of course, is that this makes revision into quite a chore, because changing the words breaks up a lot of the rhythmic effects, so rather than going back and changing a word here or there, it often makes more sense to rewrite the whole thing. (For instance, I originally ended this paragraph by saying “rewrite the page entire”. And then I was like, huh, no that’s too archaic for a blog post, people will think I just misspelled ‘entirely’. But then I tried using ‘entirely’ and it really didn’t work–the rhythm was entirely off. So I had to rewrite the line).

That change in my writing style is due primarily to my increased reading of poetry (which began last year), and in particular to Middle and Old English works.


I started seriously reading poetry in February of this year. And I think the impetus was pretty simple. I was looking for a new challenge, so I picked up Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. And I started reading it, and I was like, Yes, this is dense, but I can understand it if I make the effort.

But then I was like, why should I make that effort? You know what would be more rewarding? To make that effort to understand poetry!

So I made a reading list, bought some books, and got going. Contemporary poets I’ve really likes this year have been:

  • Kay Ryan – Okay, so the main critique of Kay Ryan is that she’s glib–her poems have no heart, and they’re not really about anything. But her use of rhyme is superb. She finds rhymes you can’t believe (I literally have a list of them, like “fifty fifty” and “brutally” or “oasis” and “missed”. It’s incredible! I think her ability to reinvigorate the English language has affected my writing more than any other contemporary poet.
  • Sharon Olds – Brilliant confessional poems. Hard to describe what makes them so good. They just seem to cut right to heart of life. I even memorized one, about a daughter coming home after college to her mom. It begins, “When she comes home, from college / I will notice the skin of her arms / It is cool, matte, glossy / She will hug my soupy old chests / to her breasts, and I will smell her hair.” She’s great.
  • Diane Wakowski – I wouldn’t call these poems confessional, so much as extremely angry. The poetic narrator is simply furious that she’s alone and unloved and ugly. Her poems are also more maximalist in style, exhibit much less control, than Olds and Ryan. I think my favorite of hers…shoot, let me find it…is a poem whose name I don’t have recorded, that’s in part about her fury over the state of her life.

This beautiful moonstone of a girl
read a beautiful moonstone of a poem
in which she identified with a famous woman poet who was famous for being
hypersensitive and who suffered from giving poetry readings
and who in fact had recently died by her own automobile exhaust

And I think of the lady in question,
who did not in fact have to give poetry readings
who was in fact moderately wealthy, who had
in fact won many honors in the stingy world of poetry
and who could only have had one reason for doing something so painful to her
that it made her kill herself
and that reason is one that I,
wearing my daily mask of horror,
will never understand / perhaps
if you are born beautiful
you are allowed to be
a fool?
And even win prizes for it?
while those of us
in our round-mouthed, deep-eyed masks
must survive,
because actually, no one would care
if we did not

But I have to say, the poets that had the great impact on me were the old ones. The REALLY old ones. Of these, the biggest impact, by far, were Chaucer and the Pearl Poet. I will say one thing, if the same person really wrote all the poems in the Pearl manuscript (a 14th century manuscript containing four poems, including Gawain and the Green Knight, that survive in no other form), then they are the greatest writer in the English language. Gawain alone is an incredibly complex, rhetorically inventive alliterative poem. But the Pearl, about a person mourning the loss of a woman, “my precious perle withouten spotte” is more affecting and beautiful. I loved both of them.

This year I learned to read Middle English, I think after I listened to a lecture in a podcast about Chaucer, and I was like, hey…I like how that sounds. It’s really not that hard, you just learn to reverse the great vowel shift in your mind (so you pronounce wife as “weef” and age as “ahge”, etc, etc, and you learn to pronounce a lot of sounds that we don’t pronounce anymore, like the k in ‘knight’. In some ways, it’s easier than modern English, because in Middle English they still pronounce all the letters. So if you see the word ‘roune’ in middle English, you’d know it was pronounced something like ‘ro-un” or “ro-un-ay” with the vowels blending into each other.

Basically there’s this app called General Prologue where one of the guys from Monty Python reads Chaucer’s general prologue aloud, and I just listened to that a bunch of times until I had it.

Anyway, Middle English works I read include:

  • “The Pearl” and “Gawain and the Green Knight”
  • The Canterbury Tales – Long, and intermittently quite dull. Definitely skip the prose sections, which are awful. But many of the tales are really fun! Particularly the ones that deal with ordinary or clerical life. Also, the writing and the rhyming is incredibly inventive. Took me a few months, but was worth it.
  • Havelok The Dane – One of the earliest Middle English songs, it bears a lot of resemblances to old English, and although lots of people find the writing to be really basic, I loved having the old English cadences.

I also spent a lot of time with Old English. Not sure exactly why I picked it up. I think that I thought, well, if I’m learning Middle, I can just go back further and learn Old.

And I think that’s pretty sound. I mean Old English is a very different language, with different word order, and with many more conjugations and senses for the words. It’s a different language on the page too: verbs tend to be preceded by clusters of verbs indicating subject and object, which means you’ll come upon a string of prepositions, articles, and pronouns before you get to the verb. Old English is also strikingly humorless. The thing that’s most fun about English literature is its lowness, its lack of seriousness. Even Gawain and the Green Knight is about some dude constantly being tempted to sleep with his host’s wife! I think that’s because Middle English comes from more like what the commoners were speaking. Old English doesn’t have that. It’s very serious.

I spent a lot of time with Old English poetry. My favorite, as I think I’ve written before, was “Dream of the Rood”, where some guy dreams that the Cross upon which Christ was crucified is speaking to him. It was surprisingly moving! I also read the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from time to time. And I’m still making my way through the Old English translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, which I have to say is a very wise book. In it, Boethius tries to argue to himself that worldly felicity (or, in the Old English, woruldsaetha) isn’t worth having. It’s really funny to imagine some Anglo Saxon, from the 9th or 10th century, reading a translation of a work by an Italian nobleman who lived in the 5th century (assuming Boethius actually wrote the book, which, to be fair, we don’t actually know).

Anyway, that was poetry. Oh, I also read a collection of Japanese taka poems that was excellent and a collection of Renaissance English poetry that really helped me to contextualize Shakespeare a lot more than I otherwise could’ve.

Other reading kicks I got into:

  • Podcasts – I got deeeeeeeeeeeeeeep into podcasts this year. It started when I listened to a book by the guy who did the History of Rome podcast. That got me into the History of Rome podcast. Then I started listening to his Revolutions podcast. I started listening to other history podcasts (right now I’m listening to ones on the History of Africa, History of the English Language, History of England, Neolithic and Bronze Age History, and History of Philosophy). I also got really into The Great Courses, which are basically college courses that got taped. I listened to so many of these that it’s absurd, including courses on Athens, Medieval England, Medieval Europe as a whole, Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Financial Crashes, the Italian Renaissance, Central Asia during the Islamic Golden Age, and a history of steppe invasions. At some point I was like…I can learn it all. I can learn ALL OF HISTORY. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, but I did learn a lot of lit.
  • Philosophy – Weirdly, although the year began with me rejecting Kant, I on a whim a few months ago ordered the Norton Introduction to Philosophy books, which come in two volumes, one discussing the Analytic and one discussing the Interpretative tradition. I started reading both, being like I’ll just do five pages a day, and then I’ll know philosophy! But both books take Kant as their starting point, so I was like let’s read him. I finished Critique of Pure Reason recently, and it was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever read (except maybe for Ulysses). But I was impressed at the way he solves, at least conceptually, certain philosophical problems raised by Hume. The only problem was if you’d never read Hume, you wouldn’t have those problems in the first place! Indeed, the more philosophy I read, the more it comes to seem like a mere thought exercise. But I am still impressed, and I want to read more. It’s definitely helping me to develop my own ideas of what I believe and to hone my argumentation. Although mostly, it makes me think, “Unless I have six hundred pages to define all my terms, what’s the point of arguming about anything?”

Alright, we’re almost at the end of not just this section, but of the whole blasted wrap-up! Can’t believe I spent an hour and a half writing this dumb thing. Other random reading kicks I got into: Fredrik Backman (his stuff is smart, nuanced, and delightful), rereading David Weber (I love Honor Harringon, what can I say?), and just a bunch of even more random stuff. I got into book podcasts, and I started taking the recommendations from book podcasts. So I read a bunch of books by the romance writer Tessa Dare, which was great until it wasn’t. And I read Peter Heller’s thriller The River, about two guys who come across a wounded woman during a rafting trip.


Excellent! Well, except for the blood clot I developed a few months after starting hormones. I had to go on blood thinners and then they did tests to show I have a genetic predisposition to blood clots, and then I started a different kind of estrogen that supposedly doesn’t cause blood clots. It was hugely depressing. I went to the ER a bunch of times to get random aches and pains ultrasounded (was convinced they were clots). But starting estrogen again was great! I’m starting to think this trans thing might be real! I’ve been really, really, really, really, really, really, really happy.

I cannot overstate how happy I’ve been. I’ve been so happy. And so productive and so enthusiastic about life. I’ve just been thinking better, and I’ve been more interested in things. I’ve lost weight, because I’ve been less hungry (and less interested in food as balm for my woes). I have been more tired, but given that I’m using my awake time more productively, it’s a fine trade-off. I’ve been more emotional and had various physical effects from the hormones. And of course it’s sort of a bummer that I don’t really pass, or even get read as a woman, most of the time. I need a ton of prep work to be read as a woman: makeup, dress, etc. And even then it fails half the time. If I just roll out of bed and go on an errand, I just look like a man.

But you know what? That’s just my fate. I mean, it might improve after a few years on hormones and after surgical interventions, but it might not. I’ll always be 6′ 7″ and balding. And it’s a bummer when even close friends and family slip up and misgender me. I sometimes want to be like, hey, you can’t just try to remember to use the right pronouns–you should actually flip the switch and adjust your perception of me, and be like, she is a woman now. But I am not a hundred percent certain how to write that.

I do still feel dysphoria sometimes–feel like I’m not what I say I am, or I’m not how I’m seen–but it’s okay. Very manageable. And generally improving.

And I have the best little cuterest little baby in the world, and she does lots of adorable things. I’m kind of the laissez-faire mom, so when I take care of her (which is most of the time), she pulls me from room to room, and then I watch her pull things off shelves and make messes. I’ve learned to distinguish between good messes (I can clean them up in a tenth of the time it takes her to make them) and bad messes, where the ratio is reversed. For instance, pulling the kleenex out of a box is a good mess, because I can stuff them all back in there in ten seconds. But upending a pack of cards and letting them all spill out is a bad mess, because she can do it in a few seconds, and it’ll take me a minute to clean up.

I feel like, you know, she’s a baby, she can’t really talk: it’s her right to explore her environment as best as she can. It’s not really reasonable for me to expect her to just sit quietly and conform to my own understanding of what ‘play’ should be. It’s nice that she doesn’t require active engagement from me all the time though.

In general I would give parenthood a positive rating. I don’t think it’s necessary in order for life to be complete, but it’s not unpleasant as an occupation, and it definitely brings couples together.

We’re not posting pictures of the baby online, but she is the world’s most adorable baby, trust me. She could be a movie star of a baby. If I posted photos of her, your reproductive organs would explode.

And Rachel continues to be the best spouse in the history of spouses. She loves and supports me. WE have conflict at times, mostly over things related to her working too hard and too many hours, but we get through it. It’s been lovely to have her as a partner during the pandemic. Weirdly, I like talking through serious things with her, and having her around when we make serious decisions. Even though she constrains and sometimes opposes my choices, she’s just…like…a good partner. She’s the best person I have ever met. I mean that literally. She is the smartest person person I know, certainly, and she is also one of the wisest, in a lot of ways. I can’t believe I picked so well! I don’t have the world’s best judgement in a lot of matters, so I definitely could’ve picked a much worse spouse: nobody would’ve been surprised! But instead I picked one of the best ones around.

Over the last two years her position at UCSF has gotten a lot more secure, so it looks like we’re in SF for the long-haul. It is weird reaching middle-age though, because I’m like, welp, Rachel, only 25 years until you retire! And then who knows what?

But for now I love SF. I never thought I’d live here: I always felt much fonder feelings towards Berkeley. The distinction between Berkeley and SF is obviously completely meaningless for both of you: it’s like saying I hate New York, but I love Hoboken. But they’re different places!

SF is great. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. The diverse assortment of little picture-perfect houses, the trees, the murals, the flowers. And it’s very easy to just walk around and see and do things. I even have some friends’ places I can walk to. Or at least see with only a short drive. One pays ungodly sums of money to live here, and it’s hard to see how it’s really worth the price, but if one must live somewhere due to one’s spouse’s work, SF is great.

Also there’s the pandemic and all the bad things that happened in the world. They were very bad. I don’t want you to think I wasn’t upset about the bad things. I was. But they didn’t affect my life as deeply as did the other things in this post, and for that I’m grateful.


Spent an hour this morning on an old pastime

I can’t be the first person to notice that the WordPress.com editor is extremely slow. It doesn’t matter what browser or app I use. I even downloaded the desktop application, and I’m typing in it right now, and there’s a noticeable delay between when I type the word and when it appears. It seems absurd–it’s basically a text editor, how hard can it be to optimize it and make it at least as fast as every other text entry field on the internet? Hmm, it just occurred to me that the fault might lie in some of the plugins I run.

Okay I did it, I went and deactivated all my plug-ins and performance has slightly improved! Maybe that was the solution the whole time. They really shouldn’t let people like me run websites–I know just enough to mess everything up completely.

Anyway, I continue to have nothing to do. I mean, I’m doing this and that. I wrote a short story and an essay yesterday, and today I sent the story out. Then I did the thing I nowadays rarely do, where I looked at my submissions spreadsheet and saw how long my stories had been out, and then I went to Duotrope and looked up the average response time for each publication, and I tried to gauge whether my submission had made it to the second round of consideration or not.

This is how I used to spend hours upon hours of my time back in the day–I’d just think, wow, I can’t imagine how my life will change after I sell to F&SF.

Of course now I’ve had two stories in that venerable rag, and my life is just the same, but still, it’s fun to imagine. I nowadays expect never to sell anything I write, so it’s always a fun surprise when an acceptance comes through. Right now I have things overdue at Analog, which is the last of the big three digests I haven’t yet sold to. I finally wrote an Analog-type story, about an arcane science-y thing, so who knows, maybe they’ll come through!

New challenges

Well I done it! I turned in my anthology story, a full NINE DAYS before the deadline. I feel extremely accomplished. Who turns something in nine days before the deadline?

Hopefully they like it. I’ve never had the editors of an anthology turn down a story, but I always worry they will. I never feel quite the same level of feeling for a solicited story as I do for one I wrote on spec. The solicited story, because it must stay within the anthology’s theme, always feels a bit more like a thought exercise.

But I’ve also never had something get rejected. And in at least one case (my story for Saundra Mitchell’s Out There anthology of LGBT YA spec fic), the story turned out really well! I’m excited for that book to come out.

Anyway with this story turned in and my novels turned in, I have nothing to do! No projects or commitments whatsoever! Been a long time since this has happened. I think I should probably just sit around watching Seinfeld all day until something comes back to me (I never caught Seinfeld when it first aired, so I am watching it now for the first time).

Lately I’ve been wondering, “So is this it? Do I just keep writing novels until I die?”

I am fine with that. I have plenty of ideas for novels. And it’s pleasant work, at least for the moment. I also generally expect the worst when it comes to writing and publishing (and am rarely proven wrong), so that element of chance keeps things fresh. I’m just excited to publish a book–to have something come out. But at the same time, having now written a lot of books (it’s hard to have an exact count, especially since lately my books have been going through 5-6 complete drafts), I do feel like, well…no, you know it would be too much to say that I understand how to write a book. But I am looking for new challenges.

But by ‘challenge’ I don’t know if I just mean ‘write a different kind of novel’. I’ve been writing these essays lately, which has been a lot of fun, and it’s nice to have the instant (compared to novel-writing) response loop. You write something, and it’s out within a few months, and people actually read it. I target publications, trying to write something that fits their style. I’ve sent a few humor pieces to McSweeney’s lately, and last night I came up with one that I have high hopes for. And I’ve a list of journals I want to be in.

And while I’m generally wary of experimental writing (since I think writing should generally give the reader some kind of pleasure), I’ve been writing some short prose pieces–figuring that at this length, the experiment can be diverting enough, and that shorter pieces are easier to place anyway.

But none of that seems entirely like the challenge I am looking for. Who knows? Who knows. Of course when I think what I’d like to do, I also always want to read more and focus more deeply.

When I write now, I sometimes think, “What do I want my impact to be on the world?” But I don’t know if this is productive–it just seems a very sterile line of reasoning, totally unconnected to the imagination. I think what’s more worthwhile for me to is to notice myself more, and to notice what interests me and what compels me, and to try and pull different pieces of my worldview to the surface and to examine them in different ways.

That’s sort of the thing, I guess–you usually don’t know what your big idea is, or even how to find it. You need a lot of silence and a lot of patience and a lot of willingness to ignore this or that false path, or to abandon a lot of the steps you’ve taken in following those false paths. And it doesn’t always (or even very often) feel particularly productive. But it is exciting, in some ways. There is a sense of exploration. And I know things now that I really wish I’d known when I was starting out. Like, younger brains are so capable of learning, but I had these preconceptions about what I was able to learn or to understand. Whereas nowadays, I’m like…I can spend a year or three learning something, I can put in the time, I can gain some kind of grounding in the topic. I just have a kind of confidence in myself that I never had, even though fifteen years ago, my brain was probably faster and better and more able to do the things I want it to do now.

It’s fun. It’s fun to know things, to realize things, to have thoughts, to feel your own mind moving over the world. Oh! You know one skill I’d really like to have? Maybe here’s something I should work on: I want to be able to describe things. I am a terrible describer. Terrible with physical or sensory details. Not all writers are great with these things, and you don’t need to be an excellent describer to be an excellent author, but still, it’s something that’s good for a person to have. You know, as part of the toolkit. Maybe I should work on that.

They never tell you that writing can be kind of addicting

Feeling very accomplished today. I had a pitch accepted for an essay. Nowadays I do this thing where I write the essay, and then I send the pitch, and at the end I’m like BTW here’s the essay itself, if you’re interested. So, you know, having the pitch accepted is a lot like having the piece accepted: although you never know, things can also go wrong.

I also made significant progress with a short story I have due for a YA anthology. It’s a very cerebral story, which is perhaps ironic, since the anthology is about sports. Lately I’ve gotten a lot freer with my short story writing, I’ve started to feel like I can do slightly wilder stuff (wild by Naomi standards–this story is in the present tense, which I almost never do). I just feel like short stories aren’t meant to be mini-novels. This isn’t the 40s, we’re not just writing little detective stories because detective novels don’t exist yet. We’re writing something people read instead of novels.

The short story, poem, and essay are also where I’m going these days to put everything that I probably couldn’t get published, either for stylistic or content reasons, in a longer form. Honestly, it’s all about the market. I feel myself grappling with the market more and more these days: not trying to win it over, but simply trying to find some way to make peace with it and sneak somehow into print. In every form, there’s a nexus of desire–there’s a reason that the form exists and is being published–and there are certain structural truths about the form. For instance, nobody reads poetry journals and nobody knows what a poem is, so if you give them something that looks different in some way from the rest of the slush pile, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s good or in any way inspired, you probably have a chance.

I dunno, I wouldn’t want to be pinned down too much on these insights, such as they exist. The point is, what they don’t tell you when you’re starting out is that writing can become addicting. You get high on your own supply! You fall in love with your own thoughts, your own words, with the affirmation that comes from hearing people respond, praise, retweet. I think this is the source of Twitter: this is why Twitter exists. It is the shortest-possible feedback loop between publishing something and getting a response. And you can sit around all day, just tweeting and pulling that lever.

But it’s the same, albeit to a lesser extent, with everything. You can write novel after novel, send them out, even publish them, you can finetune your approach, figure out how to make big swings, learn the market more and more, and become more and more a creature of conventional wisdom.

And the whole process gets you high. It makes you feel good. It’s exciting. It has nothing to do with reading books, thinking about life, or producing literature. This is why failure is so salutary for people. It pulls them up short, makes them realize, what am I doing? Why am I wasting my life this way? It also short-circuits the rewards system, so they can’t just keep putting stuff out there.

Anyway, it is really hard for me to take a conscious step back and read, instead of just writing all the time. I’m like halfway right now through a dozen books: I couldn’t even tell you all their names. Most notably, I’ve been reading a lot of Kant. I finished The Critique of Pure Reason, which felt like an accomplishment, and now I’m reading his much-more-accessible moral writings. The only problem is that because they’re so much more accessible and less abstract, you don’t have to think as much, so whereas I feel like I sort of got what Kant was saying in the previous book, right now I’m a little more at sea. Like if I was tested on this book I’d probably score lower on the test than if I was tested on the last, even though this book’s material is objectively simpler.

I’ve been trying to be the kind of writer who keeps a journal, but it’s hard. It’s very easy for me to just write nonsense in a journal, like total nonsense words. And then writing about real actual things feels silly, since writing the words takes so long that I get bored before I’m done. It’s hard to focus and drill down and only waste ink on things that matter to me in the moment I’m writing them.

I’ve been reading (amongst others), Lydia Davis’s Essays (can’t remember if it’s volume one or two), which has been great. She is so cerebral, and yet unschooled. She talks about being freed by these short fragments of stories that she writes, and she talks about how she revises each line, and how she will revise random lines in her journal, even if they’re not part of a story. It feels very organic, very unaffected, and yet also new. I also got a collection of her stories, and I like it a lot! I’ve been writing a lot of these really short stories myself, because I think they give me a chance to say things you can’t in a longer form (or at least not say and get published in a longer form). The more seemingly trivial a form, the more leeway you get, that’s why comedians are allowed to say more or less whatever they want.

Sent a complete draft of my literary novel to my agent

Hello friends, I’m feeling very accomplished (though a little at ends). I just finished a draft of my literary novel (now tentatively titled The Default World), and sent it to my agent, Christopher! This is close to my fourth year of working on the book and it marks my fourth successive fall of sending a new draft of this book to an agent. Yes, three years ago, I sent a very different version of this book to my last agent, who loved it and wanted to send it out as-is. I was like, great, just let me revise it, and a year later sent him a draft in which I had, amongst other things, turned the cis woman protagonist to a trans woman protagonist. He didn’t like it, and we parted ways. Then last fall, I sent this book out to other agents, after even more revisions, and it got turned down extensively (so my last agent wasn’t wrong about it being unsalable, although it was kind of a blow), including by my current agent!

After getting word that a YA novel proposal was going to acquisitions at Harper I went back out to agents w/ the proposal and w/ the first 100 pages of a rewrite of this book. I had thought a lot about the issues with various iterations of this book, both from the perspective of other people (generally their problem was that it was boring) and from my own perspective (I had arcane issues due to narrative distance and the omniscient voice). So I had embarked on a revision that brought the voice much closer and made it much more personal, which in turn necessitated all kinds of other changes. Anyway, the point is, I knew I could get an agent for my YA stuff, but I’ve always had agents who believed in me for YA but didn’t believe in my work for adults, either because they weren’t familiar with the adult market or because they simply didn’t respect my writing. So in this case I was looking for somebody who would really be on the same page with me.


If I’ve learned four things over the eight and a half years I’ve been an agented writer, it’s that: 1) You can’t force your agent to like your book; 2) You can force them to send it out to editors, but if they do, they likely won’t do a good job pitching it and it probably won’t sell; 3) Just because an agent thinks your book is unsellable, doesn’t mean it actually is (especially after you revise it); and 4) if you really believe in the book, it’s okay to just agree to disagree and part ways.

You know, looking for a new agent is funny. Authors are always told to ask agents, “What would happen if you didn’t like the next book I gave you?” And if you ask them that, agents always say some version of, “We would discuss it and work it out.” But the truth is that it’s more common than not to simply be unable to come to consensus on these matters. I mean think of your favorite author: You don’t like all of their published books; so why would you agent like all of the books you write? The real question is: if your agent doesn’t like your book, what will you do?

So this post is just a long way of saying, I’m anxious! This book is my baby. I have literally a million words in the scrivener folder on this book (current draft is 75,000). I was trying to think of how many complete drafts the book has gone through, and I literally couldn’t count them (it’s at least five). I’ve been trying to write a literary novel for adults for, well, at least ten years!

I have to say, it was weird having the experience of publishing that LARB essay and getting such instant feedback from the internet, in terms of retweets, comments, etc. And then to go from that to writing a novel, where you can’t put it into the world for many years–it’s a bit of a shock!

Now I’m honestly not sure what to do. I have an a story due for an anthology. And some other stuff essays and junk cooking. But mostly feel like, welp, what am I doing now!

It’s amazing what people don’t tell you about writing. Like, maybe I should also be thinking of an idea for another YA novel? I figure that since my next one is coming out in 2023, I probably should sell the fourth one before the third one comes out. But I have no idea if that’s realistic.


Last year I committed myself to doing whatever writing I could publish without having an agent

Hello everyone. I got my COVID booster a few days ago, and today I got dizzy and fell down several times. Not a pleasant experience. But I assume COVID is an even-less-pleasant experience.

I am also going through edits on another piece that is going to appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education sometime next week, and I wrote a piece too that I sent to the LA Review of Books that maybe / probably will appear next week.

Not sure what to say about the whole essay-writing thing. I’ve always wanted to try to write for periodicals—it’s something they seem to have endless demand for—but was never sure who to pitch or how to develop ideas. I had a bad experience in 2013 when I pitched an article to Salon and worked really hard on it, and it was not at all what they wanted, and they killed it. So I didn’t try again for a long time. In retrospect it was probably good for me not to get caught up in the hot-take production line, but at the time it felt like a major failure, and it seemed like I just would never be able to adapt my voice to what any periodical might want.

The whole thing is really obscure. You can pitch articles in one of two ways: either to some submission email or portal the publication has (in some cases), or by hunting down the relevant editor and emailing them. But when I went with the latter, it never quite worked somehow. I actually tried sending things to the LA Review of Books multiple times, and it turned out that the editors had left or were about to leave. Submissions got swallowed up without reply by their general submissions portal. Finally, with my classical education piece, I sent it to someone on their masthead who was like “I’m not a commissioning editor, but I’ll send it on to Boris (their editor in chief)” who liked it. But even then they were like, “We will get you an edit in September.” I had no idea what that means…did it mean the piece was accepted or not?

This is just how writing for periodicals is I guess! To be honest I have no idea. I have a bunch of friends who do it, and I could’ve asked them, but always felt too shy. I prefer to fail in private. With these things, stuff that’s outside my comfort zone, I wonder if I’m good enough or whatever.

But I’ve been really pleased at the success of the classical education piece! It’s been retweeted and included in all kinds of wrap-ups and substacks. Oh my god, there are a lot of literary substacks. Wow. Come on, guys, haven’t you ever heard of a good old-fashioned WordPress blog? It’s like a substack but people can also find it online. Anyway, I have no substack, but you’re certainly welcome to do an email subscription to this blog—there’s some kind of tool or doohickey for doing that on the left-hand side of the page.

I’ve gotten a few emails—not an outpouring or anything, but a few—praising the piece. One was from an editor at Chronicle of Higher Education. They asked for pitches. I gave them one.

Personally, I hate pitching. I prefer to write out a piece beforehand. I think I’m sensitized by the Salon incident. I just want them to be able to scroll down, read the article, and see right away if it’s good enough. So in this case, after being accepted off a pitch, I was on tenterhooks, worrying the piece itself wouldn’t make the cut.

I dunno. It’s a sideline. Sorry if this is scattered or disjunctled—I’m still recovering from the shot and the fall (the latter happened about half an hour ago). I started writing essays (again) around this time last year, when I was still hunting for an agent. I’d spent a year looking, with little success. I was working on a fantasy novel, and I abandoned it, thinking, “What’s the point? It’s just another thing that I can do nothing with unless I get an agent.” So I made a big list of writing that I could do and pursue even without an agent. I’m trying to remember what was on that list. It was definitely something like the following:

  • Pitch another YA novel to my editor
  • Sci-fi short stories
  • Literary short stories
  • Literary essays
  • Book reviews
  • Poetry
  • Self-publishing
  • etc

Obviously the biggest outcome of that decision to refocus my energies was that I wrote a proposal for my third YA novel, Just Happy To Be Here, which my editor took to acquisitions—which event finally found me an agent. But I also got short stories published in Gulf Coast and West Branch. I had poems appear in Cherry Tree and Vallum. I had book reviews in The Rumpus and The Bind. I self-published my cynical writer’s guide. and now I’m having these essays come out!

I think once I started working on all those sidelines, I felt almost immediately much better, more in control, and more confident about my fate. I literally said to myself, “Okay, even if I never get another novel published, I can keep writing, and that’s what’s important.” It was a very empowering moment for me. I know that none of these forms is nearly as high-impact as having a novel come out from a major publisher, and none of them is as close to my heart as my literary novel (which was the book that was failing to find an agent), but I think what’s important is just that you work, that you have a meaningful outlet for your talents, and that you have some chance of seeing your work reach the world. What’s so corrosive about the agent search is that your life is just on hold until you find an agent—you can write another book, but why bother? In my experience the agent usually doesn’t like the second book. And anyway they won’t send out the second one until the first one sells! So you’re just left sitting there twiddling your thumbs, waiting for someone to read your manuscript.

Breaking through that cycle was really great and empowering, and I continue to bear its fruits.

Reflections on writing an intellectual essay

Hello friendly people! Sorry I haven’t posted in so long. For me the big news is my intellectual-type essay came out at the Los Angeles Review of Books. It’s about how I think the relationship between the elite class and a love of classical literature has been a bit overstated. But more broadly it’s about the meaning and purpose of the classics.

For years I used to be very impressed by all these New York Review of Books style essays. They seemed very learned, as if the author had done reams of research before writing them. Then I started reading collections of criticism, and I realized something. Every author has their go-to reference points that they’re going to return to again and again. Samuel Delany is always going to mention Barthes, for instance. People aren’t doing research to write these essays: they’re just generally well-read people who are able to come up with a bunch of supporting facts and quotes out of their own reading.

With that as a model, I decided to write my own intellectual essay without doing any specific research (I was also worried about accidentally plagiarizing someone). You’ll notice my essay doesn’t have direct quotes–that’s because I didn’t even go back and check my references. One book I cited in there, The Chosen, I read when I was a sophomore in college. Almost sixteen years ago. Haven’t read it since. But I’m pretty sure it says what I said it says.

I also realized that the whole form as a whole is intellectually bankrupt. To prove any assertion when it comes to literature is utterly beyond the abilities, or even the intelligence, of most literary critics. Like, I’ve been reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and the man takes such care to define exactly what he means by each term. He is so careful to draw a distinction between “sensibility” (the means by which we gain impressions of appearances) and “understanding” (the means by which we produce cognitions about those impressions) and “reason” (the means by which we produce…well I’m not going to pretend I understand Kant well enough to explain it to you). Anyway, the point is he is VERY specific.

You can’t be that specific in a literary essay. Thus, it’s very difficult to even say anything in a clear manner. For instance, in my essay, what does it mean to say “a classical education”. Do I mean just the Greek and Latin classics? Which ones? Do I mean a knowledge of Greek and Latin itself? When I say ‘elites’ what do I mean? When I say ‘valued’ or ‘paid attention to’, what do I mean? It’s more or less impossible to be rigorous in any essay that speaks of what a group of people in the past thought or believed.

Given that, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to constructing an iron-clad argument. I just figured I could throw out a lot of disparate reference points, raise a few questions, and call it a day! To my mind, that’s a lot more intellectually honest than pretending to some kind of comprehensiveness that’s not really possible.

I had a lot of fun doing this. It’s probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had in writing. I have LOTS of thoughts about literature and culture, and mostly nobody cares about them. However this one time I did find the time and the venue where I could make some hay, and for that I’m grateful.

Even though it’s an intellectually bankrupt form, it is a bit intimidating for me, a non-academic, with two fake degrees (a BA in Econ and an MFA in creative writing) to opine about high culture, and I am dead certain that I got a lot of my facts wrong, but the nice thing about literature is…it’s not exactly life or death. Nobody is gonna stand up in a house of parliament and cite my paper as a reason for why they should bomb another country. Opining about literature feels quite safe, in a way that most things don’t. Not because people can’t get angry about it (they can and do), but because the harm you can do is relatively limited.