Only A Place

"Parting with people is a sadness. A place is only a place."

-Frank Herbert, DUNE

(At some point I'll share my thoughts on my first residency and my MFA experience so farspoiler alert, it's AMAZINGbut I'm still settling into the new routine...)

2016

Even though I'm scrambling to finish all the readings/critiques for my first MFA residency (WHICH STARTS IN TWO DAYS HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS), I wanted to take a moment to post my broad goals for 2016 (minus the super personal ones):

  • Kick ass in grad school.
  • Sell my first story.
  • Be more deliberate in every decision.
  • Be more mindful in every moment.

The year ahead is a blank page, and I can't wait to spill some ink on it. If you're reading this, here's hoping your future looks just as bright.

Much love to y'all.

Peter


P.S. As I mentioned previously, I won't be posting monthly writing/reading updates in 2016. However, I often talk about WIPs and books over on Twitter, if you're interested in such things.

All You Can Ask For, Really

“One day, you'll go a whole minute without feeling the pain. Then an hour. A day. That's all you can ask for, really.”

-Sabaa Tahir, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES

Every Second That Comes After

“Life is made of so many moments that mean nothing. Then one day, a single moment comes along to define every second that comes after."

-Sabaa Tahir, AN EMBER IN THE ASHES

Headed for the Trunk (Writing Update)

I'm buried in work, so I'm afraid I don't have anything witty or insightful to offer as a lead-in to this month's writing update.

Instead, I'll just leave this here:


Writing update for November:

I started the month tightening up the two workshop manuscripts for my first MFA residency in January. I'm reasonably pleased with the first (a GARDEN OF THE STARS story), though it probably still needs a few minor tweaks. But I've revised the second (A SMUDGED AND CROOKED LINE) so much that I'm no longer sure it's any good. Unless I receive a glowing response from the workshop, this one's probably headed for the trunk.

I spent the remainder of the month on the Herculean task of compiling all my notes for GARDEN OF THE STARS. As usual, this type of organization gets me excited to start writing. Which is great, since I'll need that excitement to push through the initial fear of fucking everything up. 

I also used the last week of November to read through my grandfather's unfinished memoir, then interviewed my father to fill in the gaps. The whole experience was fascinating, and extremely gratifying. This will likely mushroom into a much larger project over the next couple of years, as I clamber up through the other branches of my family tree.

Writing goals for December:

I have a ton of reading (and critiquing) to do this month in preparation for my first residency, so I'm keeping the writing a bit on the lighter side. In the next week or two, I plan to finish compiling all notes for GARDEN OF THE STARS, and put together a preliminary outline for the first novel. After that, I need to do a quick pass on the revised chapters of A RAVENING FIRE (which I threatened to do last month) so I can feel more confident trunking them.


Books read/listened to in November:

  • ACACIA by David Anthony Durham. Epic in every sense of the word. I'm intrigued to see how the rest of the series unfolds.
     
  • THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renée Ahdieh (audiobook). Complex, beautifully written YA. I can't wait for the next installment.
     
  • THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE by Nawal El Saadawi. A fascinating exploration of women's subjugation in the Arab world. Ms. El Saadawi's willingness to question the status quo, not to mention her unflinching bravery in the face of ruthless gender tyranny, is truly admirable. A difficult read, but a necessary one.

Reading/listening list for December:

  • KINDRED by Octavia Butler.
  • THE MANGY PARROT by José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (abridged).
  • BINTI by Nnedi Okorafor.
  • AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir (audiobook).
  • NO GOD BUT GOD by Reza Aslan.
  • WRITING THE OTHER by Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward.
  • THE HANDBOOK OF NONSEXIST WRITING by Casey Miller & Kate Swift.
  • HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE AND HOW TO READ ONE by Stanley Fish.
  • SEVERAL SHORT SENTENCES ABOUT WRITING by Verlyn Klinkenborg.
  • ARTFUL SENTENCES by Virginia Tufte.

Honestly, that seems like plenty of books for one month, but it's entirely possible I might need to add a few more to the list.


I'm exhausted already.

Peter

What Little Boys Do

I wrote this over a year ago and never got around to posting it. Names redacted to cover my ass.


A friend of mine recently opened his own catering business. A few weeks back, he asked if I'd help him with a large Bar Mitzvah he was catering at [bus station/event center]. He's always doing me favors, so of course I said yes. The catering itself went off without a hitch (aside from a few bus patrons filching food off our carts), but when the time came to load everything back in the van, things got a little nuts.

We rolled most of the equipment and leftover food out to the sidewalk in front of the station, while two of the women my friend had hired left to bring the van around. I elected to stand watch while my friend and his wife went back inside for the rest of the gear.

While I was waiting, a blocky sedan the color of rotting bones pulled up to the curb, with a woman apparently passed out in the passenger seat. A man with no neck, boxer's ears, and a haircut you could set your watch to lurched out. He looked to be about my height (I'm not tall by any stretch), but he had some heft to him. The top three buttons of his shirt were undone, revealing a hairy chest and a thin gold necklace.

He swaggered over to the valet stand with the kind of don't-fuck-with-me confidence reserved for men secure in their own physical prowess. A small family was gathered around—a young man, his wife, and three clinging children.

"Are you the valet?" No-Neck grunted.

The young man smiled politely. "No, we're just waiting for our car."

No-Neck strode over to me next, purposeful. He pointed at the bone-brown car. "That guy's going to stay right there while I go inside and talk to [club owner], okay?"

I don't know whether he thought I was the valet at that point (unlikely, since I was wearing an apron, surrounded by catering paraphernalia), or simply that I worked for [club owner]. Either way, I didn't want to get on this guy's bad side.

"Okay," I shrugged.

Once No-Neck had disappeared inside, the young man called over to me. "What did he say to you?"

"He told me he was leaving his car while he went inside to talk to [club owner]."

"What, did he think you were the valet?" The young man burst out laughing. "The look on your face was priceless. You were like, I DON'T FUCKING CARE!"

I laughed as well, albeit nervously.

The valet arrived shortly with the young man's car. As he ducked into the driver's side, still chuckling, he called to me. "You made my night, bro!"

After the family drove off, my friend and his wife returned with more equipment. My friend's wife stayed with me while he went back in for one last trip. I glanced at No-Neck's car, to reassure myself that the woman in the passenger seat was still asleep, then I told my friend's wife what had happened. She had a good laugh.

No-Neck reappeared, and my heart jumped. But he strode past me, and as he approached his car, I allowed myself a sigh of relief.

Then the woman in the passenger seat opened her eyes.

She pointed an accusing finger at me. "He was disrespecting you while you were inside!"

My first thought was, Has she been awake this whole time?

My second thought was, Oh, shit.

No-Neck rounded on me. "What did he say?"

"I don't know," said the woman. "But that family at the valet stand was laughing and laughing. I don't understand! Why would he disrespect you like that?"

No-Neck barreled up to me, breath steaming from his nostrils. "Because that's what little boys do."

I almost laughed. Tearing down another guy's manhood is the default for alpha males, and at this point in my life, I'm pretty much immune to such petty shit. But I could see two little spots of blood on the lobe of his right ear, and it was becoming increasingly difficult not to think about where they might have come from. "Look, man." I held up my hands. "They asked what you said to me, and I told them. That's it. I meant no disrespect."

No-Neck squared his shoulders and put his face very close to mine, sizing me up. I'd reached the point of fight or flight. I wasn't about to run, but I sure as hell wasn't about to be drawn into a fight with this guy. I had no doubt that if he chose to throw a punch, I would have been laid out.

At that moment, the two women my friend had hired returned with the van. "Are you going to move this car?" one of them called.

No-Neck's eye twitched. A vein in his forehead bulged. He stomped toward the van. "Listen…I'm not having a very good night." His voice was calm, like he was trying hard not to let the rage froth out of him. Even so, he had the air of a man already committed to doing violence. Despite my near bowel-loosening terror, I followed after him. I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I wasn't about to let him hurt someone else because of my stupid mouth.

No-Neck turned to stare at me, that appraising look on his face again. By now, the valets and a bunch of other people were milling about. No-Neck must have thought we weren't worth the trouble. He gave me one last scowl, then stormed back to his car, jerked the door open, and drove away.

My friend returned, and I told him what had happened, adrenaline still thumping through my veins, making my hands tremble. We packed up the van and got the hell out of there.

I later learned that No-Neck has ties to the mob. My friend's aunt held a function at [event center] and was brought in the back to talk to [club owner], where she was threatened. Apparently, parts of [event center] are mob-run, and [club owner] is some sort of boss.

Needless to say, I won't be returning anytime soon.

So Many Firsts

The fifth anniversary of Brian Jacques's death is coming up in just a couple of months, so I thought I'd take a moment to acknowledge the man who influenced me the most as a young writer.

The man himself.

Jacques was the first author whose stories I fell head over heels in love with. The first author I wanted to emulate. He's the reason the cartoons I created as a child almost exclusively featured anthropomorphic animals. (Also, I couldn't draw people for shit.) To this day, many of my stories include no or few human characters.

However, his lasting impact on my writing has been much more profound.

Jacques was my first real taste of an author striking a believable balance between the historical and the fantastical. He taught me that you don't need dragons or magic to instill a sense of wonder—that a story can take place in an imaginary world, populated by talking mice, rabbits, and badgers, and still feel grounded in reality. He helped shape the way I view the role of the supernatural in fantasy stories—as a tool used not to dominate the narrative, but to illuminate the truth within.

Oversized t-shirt and JTT haircut.
This was my JAM.

Jacques was also the first author I ever met. When I was twelve or thirteen, he made an appearance at the Concord Free Public Library, which I dragged my mother and brother to. I don't remember why my father didn't come. (He was traveling to London regularly at the time, which I forgave him for, since he'd bring back UK editions of Jacques's latest releases, often before they were even available in the US.)

Between the reading and the signing, Jacques took a smoke break, and a handful of us kids braved the cloud of second-hand carcinogens just so we could spend a few extra minutes with him. I gushed about how much I loved OUTCAST OF REDWALL, and asked if he had plans to return to Bat Mountpit in the future.

"Oh, you like the bats, do you lad?" He winked at me, but made no promises.

Bunny ears.
My brother wasn't impressed.

Afterward, he signed four of my books. (There was a two-book limit, but I gave the other two to my brother, who to this day hasn't read a single Redwall novel.) All four still grace my shelves, and are among my most prized possessions.

So thank you, Mr. Jacques. For imagining such a wondrous world. For trusting young readers with stories that were often grim, occasionally terrifying, but always uplifting. Thank you for inspiring me.

And above all, thank you for being so many of my firsts.

Ancient Drive

"Be it BLOOD or GEOGRAPHY or just the common ground born of a common enemy that binds us, we are all subject to an ancient drive to form an US and pit it against a THEM."

-Kelly Sue DeConnick, BITCH PLANET

Impostor Syndrome (Writing Update)

The time has come to talk about the Project-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named™.

Over the last six months, I've devoted a good chunk of my writing time to MFA applications. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, I'm excited to announce that I've been accepted into the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine!

For a long time, I wasn't sure pursuing an MFA was the right choice for me—mostly because I didn't think I could afford to leave my job (something I won't have to worry about, thanks to Stonecoast's low-residency model), but also because of my old friend Impostor Syndrome. Frankly, I wasn't sure I was a good enough writer to pursue an MFA (which is part of the reason I was reluctant to talk about the application process on this blog...I was insulating myself against potential failure).

But in the last year, I've started thinking a lot more about my own mortality. About how short life is. About the legacy I want to leave behind. Heavy stuff, for sure, but it made me realize that if I wanted to pursue a career as a writer, I needed to get off my ass. I couldn't just sit around waiting for someone to hand me a paycheck.

Of course, once I started the application process, Impostor Syndrome was right there to remind me what a minuscule chance I stood of actually being accepted. I sweated over every detail: Is it okay to curse in my writing sample? How the fuck do I write a novel synopsis? Should I call attention to the piss-poor grade I received in my college critical writing class?

There were times when applying to schools on top of all the other shit I was dealing with felt like a special kind of hell. There were times when I seriously thought about giving up. But I'm fortunate enough to have an incredible network of friends and family who encouraged me throughout the entire process. And here I am on the other side, gearing up for what I'm sure is going to be an amazing adventure.

And yet...

Impostor Syndrome keeps trying to knock me back down. When people tell me I've earned this, all I can think is, "Have I?" How do I know my acceptance wasn't just a fluke? An administrative mistake? What if all the other students are way more intelligent/talented/attractive than I am? What if they realize I'm a fraud the second I step through the door?

Here's the thing. I'm not a natural storyteller. There are people who can take a simple trip to the grocery store and spin it into the most compelling epic since the Iliad. I'm not one of them. It takes me a long time to get a story to the point where it's more than just a quivering puddle of word vomit. So it's hard for me to accept that I might have what it takes to write professionally.

But if someone's willing to take a chance on me, to help me bring my craft up to the professional level, then you can bet your ass I'm going to give it everything I've got.


Writing update for October:

I spent much of the month working on the two manuscripts I'll be submitting for my first residency in January. I also spent some extra time working on A SMUDGED AND CROOKED LINE and doing research for GARDEN OF THE STARS.

Writing goals for November:

After I finish my two manuscripts, I'm planning on doing a quick pass on the chapters I've already completed for A RAVENING FIRE (so that I can feel more comfortable setting it aside). I plan to spend the rest of the month compiling notes for GARDEN OF THE STARS and putting together preliminary outlines for some of the stories I want to tell in that universe.


Books read/listened to in October:

  • THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS by Kai Ashante Wilson. This book was like nothing I've ever read. I absolutely loved it. (Although the ending WRECKED me.)
     
  • WAKING THE MOON by Elizabeth Hand. Superbly written and incredibly compelling. Plus, the themes of gender and feminism dovetailed nicely with UNSPEAKABLE THINGS.
     
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes (audiobook). I can't believe I'd never read/listened to this before. An interesting look at the intersection between intelligence and humanity. Riveting from start to finish.
     
  • A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (audiobook). While I thought this book was well written, I didn't find much to latch onto, character-wise. Ultimately, it just fell flat for me.
     
  • UNSPEAKABLE THINGS by Laurie Penny. A fascinating exploration of modern gender dynamics. I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in deconstructing some of the toxic myths at the heart of our neoliberal patriarchy.

Reading/listening list for November:

  • ACACIA by David Anthony Durham.
  • THE WRATH AND THE DAWN by Renée Ahdieh (audiobook).
  • THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE by Nawal El Saadawi.

I'd say that's enough soul-baring for one post. Until next time, folks. Be good to one another.

Peter

Simultaneous

"We will never know world peace until three people can simultaneously look each other straight in the eye."

-Puscifer, "Simultaneous"

The Real World

"It's like we spend our whole lives walking on this little rind that covers the world, this little crust that's got flowers on it, and dirt and houses and families and—and then one day, you break through, you just fall right through, and you see there's something else there. The real world, the world that was there a million years ago, the world you see when you're a kid alone in the dark; the world that fills your worst dreams until you can't even wake up screaming from it, you can't wake up at all..."

-Elizabeth Hand, WAKING THE MOON

Plague Years

"I watched people I loved die and with each death something more of beauty drained away not only from the world but from me. I do not mean just that my life was lessened by their dying—though it was—or that I was not fortunate to be alive and grateful for it. I only mean that I had always felt that it was others who made me beautiful, by choosing to love me."

-Elizabeth Hand, WAKING THE MOON

Human Affection

"Intelligence and education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."

-Daniel Keyes, FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON

Daisy

A few people suggested I record another song, so I thought I'd try something a bit lower in my range. It's a little raw, a little rough around the edges, but I had fun with it.

Collective Empathy

I saw THE MARTIAN for the second time tonight. It's one of those rare films I actually enjoyed seeing in a packed theater, knowing that everyone in the audience was as invested in the story as I was, hearing the collective empathy of the room as we gasped, laughed, and cried together.

It's not often that I enjoy being in a crowd full of strangers (probably because I'm an incurable misanthrope). But movies like this give me hope for the human race...

Mutiny In Our Time

"There comes a time when you have to decide whether to change yourself to fit the story, or change the story itself. The decision gets a little easier if you understand that refusing to shape your life and personality to the contours of an unjust world is the best way to start creating a new one."

-Laurie Penny, UNSPEAKABLE THINGS

The Unwritten Future (Writing Update)

Quick update this month. (I've got a ton on my plate these daysall of it good, thankfully.)


Writing update for September:

I spent the entire month revising A SMUDGED AND CROOKED LINE, and I'm still not finished. The good news is, I've pushed through the difficult parts, and I'm starting to love this draft again. But it's obvious I still need to find a better way to meet my (self-imposed) deadlines when a revision requires a significant amount of re-writes.

Writing goals for October:

Finish A SMUDGED AND CROOKED LINE, send it to readers, start submitting it again. This shouldn't (hopefully!) take up too much of the month. After that, I'll be working on...well, I haven't decided what yet. For reasons I'll probably reveal in the next writing update, there's a solid chance I'm going to have to put the current draft of A RAVENING FIRE aside for a bit. So, I might use the rest of the year to revise as much as I can, or I might work on THE DISTANT LIGHT OF DAWN, or I might write something new. Right now, I'm reveling in the unwritten future.


Books read/listened to in September:

  • A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA by Sofia Samatar. A beautifully written book. I didn't know what to expect going in, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
     
  • SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older. For a YA urban fantasy about shadow creatures, this book touches on some heavy subjects, including race, gender, gentrification, and familial obligation. Definitely worth a read.
     
  • CITY OF STAIRS by Robert Jackson Bennett (audiobook). This book felt remarkably grounded, despite the ubiquity of divinities and miracles . I appreciated that it took place in a slightly more modern setting than the typical fantasy.
     
  • BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An important work, chronicling Coates's experiences as a black man in America (written as a letter to his son). Everyone in the American galaxy needs to read this book.

Reading/listening list for October:

  • THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS by Kai Ashante Wilson.
  • WAKING THE MOON by Elizabeth Hand.
  • FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by Daniel Keyes (audiobook).
  • A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ by Walter M. Miller, Jr (audiobook).
  • UNSPEAKABLE THINGS by Laurie Penny.
  • THE PERSIANS by Homa Katouzian. (Still working my way through this one as part of ongoing research for GARDEN OF THE STARS.)

That's it. There's nothing left for you here. Go outside. Toss a rock around. Eat a fruit. Kick a tree. Whatever kids do these days.

Peter

The Best Way Out

Today was perfect mountain biking weather—not too hot, not too cold, not too buggy. It hasn't rained in over a week, so the trails were nice and dry (the conservation land where I normally ride is very marshy, so flooding is a frequent issue), plus the leaves haven't started falling yet, so the ground wasn't smothered in a blanket of wet detritus.

I've been to this conservation land dozens of times, and have come to know the trails intimately. I've only gotten lost once. It was three or four years ago, on an unseasonably warm November afternoon, and I'd biked all the way to the top of a small hill underneath the power lines—the farthest I'd ever traveled on this particular trail.

I followed the trail down the other side of the hill to the edge of a marsh, where it vanished into the water. Some three hundred feet away, I could see what looked like the same trail emerging on the opposite shore, so I assumed it had just been flooded. I couldn't find a way around, but I was convinced that this trail connected to one of the others I'd ridden before, and that it would be a simple matter for me to wade across and complete the loop.

Not so much.

I kept slipping on submerged rocks as I walked my bike into the marsh. And despite the warmth in the air, the water was absolutely frigid. About twenty feet in—teeth chattering, waist deep and sinking deeper, keenly aware that the sun was setting—I was forced to admit that the marsh was a permanent fixture, and the trail on the other side a mirage. I turned back, defeated.

Why am I telling you all this? Because today I crossed the marsh.

I rode back to the spot that had defeated me years before, determined to push through. It was earlier in the day—earlier in the season—and the water was downright warm. I found a shallow section where I could ford the marsh (much to the dismay of the frogs who lived there), and splashed across in a matter of minutes.

There was indeed a trail on the opposite shore. It led up and over another hill through some pretty gnarly terrain, comprised mostly of loose, jagged rocks. I was sure I was going to flip over the handlebars at any moment. But I made it to the bottom safely, only to find that the trail had vanished again—this time into a thick snarl of brush and bramble.

I wasn't ready to admit defeat a second time. I'd made it this far, hadn't I?

I abandoned my bike and shoved my way through the undergrowth, stumbling out into a field of young Christmas trees pushing up from the scrub. (I'm sure those trees would be horrified to learn that in three months' time they'll be propped in parlors and draped in tinsel.) At this point, it was clear I'd blundered onto someone's private property. Not wanting to be rude (or to be caught trespassing), I skirted around the edge of the field, hunting for the trail I knew existed.

I never found it. I'm reasonably confident it was on the far side of the field, past another impenetrable tangle of vegetation. But even if I could somehow push my way through, I knew I'd never be able to drag my bike with me. So, scraped and bruised, I staggered back the way I'd come and retraced my tracks to the trail head, defeated again.


If there's a point to this story, it's that, in my experience, the best way out isn't always through. (Sorry, Frost.) Sometimes you need to start over. Sometimes you need to trudge back through the sludge and find a different trail, rather than blindly forging ahead simply because this is the path you chose.

I've recently been forced to confront this truth, both in my writing and in my life. Knowing when to push through and when to turn back is an invaluable skill—one that I'm not sure everyone learns. It's allowed me not only to be more forgiving of myself and my work, but to be more productive as well.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go toss my soaking sneakers in the dryer.